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


Utilitarianism, Justice, and Love


For one who rejects ethical egoism and also feels unhappy about the deontological theories we have been discussing, the natural alternative is the teleological theory called utilitarianism. Speaking roughly, deontological theories take other people seriously but do not take the promotion of good seriously enough, egoism takes the promotion of good seriously but does not take other people seriously enough, and utilitarianism remedies both of these defects at once. It also eliminates the problem of possible conflict of basic principles. What then could be more plausible than that the right is to promote the general good -- that our actions and our rules, if we must have rules, are to be decided upon by determining which of them produces or may be expected to produce the greatest general balance of good over evil?

There are less precise ways of defining utilitarianism, which I shall use for convenience, but in my use of the term, I shall mean the view that the sole ultimate standard of right, wrong, and obligation is the principle of utility, which says quite strictly that the moral end to be sought in all we do is the greatest possible balance of good over evil (or the least possible balance of evil over good) in the whole world. Here "good" and "evil" mean nonmoral good and evil. This implies that whatever the good and the bad are, they are capable of being measured and balanced against each other in some quantitative or at least mathematical way. Jeremy Bentham recognized this most explicitly when he tried to work out a hedonic calculus of pleasures and pains using seven dimensions: intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent. John Stuart Mill, partly in reaction, sought to introduce quality as well as quantity into the evaluation of pleasures; but, if one does this, it is hard to see how the utilitarian standard is to be stated, and Mill never did make this clear.

It follows from this understanding of utilitarianism that if there are insuperable difficulties in the way of measuring and balancing goods and evils, and there certainly are difficulties, then this fact will constitute a serious objection to utilitarianism. However, such difficulties also pose a problem for anyone who holds, as Ross and I do, that we have at least a prima facie duty to promote good or eliminate evil, and so I shall stress certain other objections rather than this one, though Chapter 5 will contain some remarks bearing on this one also.

Even if one holds, as all utilitarians, do, that what is morally right or wrong is ultimately to be wholly determined by looking to see what promotes the greatest general balance of good over evil, a variety of possible views are open, and we cannot state and discuss thern all. We shall distinguish three kinds of utilitarianism, each of which includes a family of views, and we must state and discuss them without attributing to them any particular theory about what is nonmorally good or bad. Some utilitarians are hedonists about this, equating the good with happiness and happiness with pleasure, and others are non-hedonists of one sort or another, but we are interested here only in their theories of obligation and not in their theories of value.


First, then, there is act-utilitarianism (AU). Act-utilitarians hold that in general or at least where it is practicable, one is to tell what is right or obligatory by appealing directly to the principle of utility or, in other words, by trying to see which of the actions open to him will or is likely to produce the greatest balance of good over evil in the universe. One must ask "What effect will my doing this act in this situation have on the general balance of good over evil?", not "What effect will everyone's doing this kind of act in this kind of situation have on the general balance of good over eyjl?" Generalizations like "Telling the truth is probably always for the greatest general good" or "Telling the truth is generally for the greatest general good" may be useful as guides based on past experience; but the crucial question is always whether telling the truth in this case is for the greatest general good or not. It can never be right to act on the rule of telling the truth if we have good independent grounds for thinking that it would be for the greatest general good not to tell the truth in a particular case, any more than it can be correct to say that all crows are black in the presence of one that is not. Bentham and G. E. Moore probably held such a view, perhaps even Mill; today it is held, among others, by J. J. C. Smart and Joseph Fletcher, though the latter prefers to call it "situation ethics," of which it is one kind.

It should be observed that, for AU, one must include among the effects of an action any influence it may have, by way of setting an example or otherwise, on the actions or practices of others or on their obedience to prevailing rules. For example, if I propose to cross a park lawn or to break a promise, I must consider the effects my doing so may have on other walkers or on people's tendency to keep promises. After all, even if these are thought of as, "indirect" effects of my action, they are still among its effects.

Against pure AU, which would not allow us to use any rules or generalizations from past experience but would insist that each and every time we calculate anew the effects of all the actions open to us on the general welfare, it seems enough to reply that this is simply impracticable and that we must have rules of some kind -- as we saw before in discussing act-deontological theories. But even against modified AU, which does allow us to use rules of thumb based on past experience, the following arguments, borrowed from Butler and Ross, seem to me decisive. The first is that it is possible in a certain situation to have two acts, A and B, which are such that if we calculate the balance of good over evil which they may be expected to bring into being (counting everything), we obtain the same score in the case of each act, say 100 units on the plus side. Yet act A may involve breaking a promise or telling a lie or being unjust while B does none of these things. In such a situation, Butler and Ross point out, the consistent AU must say that A and B are equally right. But clearly, in this instance, B is right and A is wrong, and hence AU is unsatisfactory. It seems to me, when I think it over, that Butler and Ross must be regarded as correct in this argument by anyone who is not already committed to AU.

The other Butler-Ross argument is that in certain situation there might be two acts, A and B, such that, when their scores are calculated, the results are as follows: A is conducive to a slightly larger balance of good over evil than B. But it might also be that A involves breaking a promise, telling a lie, or being unjust. Here the AU must say that A is right and B wrong. But again, Butler and Ross contend, B is or at least may be right and A is or at least may be wrong. Hence, AU must be rejected. There are or at least may be cases in which rules like keeping promises and not lying must be followed even when doing so is not for the greatest general good in the particular situation in question. Strictly speaking, this argument does not disprove AU; it does, however, make it clear, in my opinion, that AU is unsatisfactory from the moral point of view.

The point is that a particular act may be made right or wrong by facts about it other than the amount of good or evil it produces, for example, it may be wrong because it involves breaking a promise, telling a lie, or violating some rule. Butler and Ross argue thus in order to establish a deontologlcal position, but, as we shall see, this point can be admitted and used by certain kinds of utilitarians. Much the same point has, in fact, been made recently both by deontologists and utilitarians, for example, by A. C. Ewing and R. B. Brandt. They contend that many actions that are and are ordinarily regarded as wrong would be right on an AU view consistently applied. To show this they cite cases of a poor man stealing from a rich one to feed his family, a busy citizen not going to the polls on election day, a student crossing a university lawn, a society "punishing" an innocent person to prevent panic, or a woman breaking an agreement an agreement to pay a boy for work done because she has a better use for her money. In such cases, properly hedged about, it seems clear that the act in question may produce at least as great a balance of good over evil in general as any alternative open to the agent, and that an AU must therefore judge it to be right. As Ewing puts it,

It is indeed difficult to maintain that it cannot under any circumstances be right to lie, etc., on [act] utilitarian grounds, e.g., to save life, but it seems to me pretty clear that [act] utilitarian principles, logically carried out, would result in far more cheating, lying, and unfair action than any good man would tolerate.1

Of course, an AU can stick to his guns here and insist that the actions in question are right in the circumstances. Our question now, however, is whether we ourselves are willing to accept AU, seeing that it entails such conclusions. Like Ewing and Brandt, I am not.


The second kind of utilitarianism may be called general utilitarianism (GU). It holds that one is not to ask in each situation which action has the best consequences, but it does not talk about rules. According to GU one is not to ask "What will happen if I do so and so in this case?" or "What rule should I follow?" but rather, "What would happen if everyone were to do so and so in such cases?" In doing this it fits in with our ordinary moral thinking in an important respect, for we do often argue against someone's doing something by asking "What if everybody did that?" with the implication that if everybody did it the results would be bad or at least worse than if they were not to do it. The idea behind GU is that if something is right for one person to do in a certain situation, then it is also right for anyone else who is similarly situated to do, and hence that one cannot ask simply what effects one's proposed action will have in a particular case -- one must ask what the consequences would be if everyone were to act likewise in such cases. This view has been best stated by M. G. Singer.2

It is easy to see why GU can claim to deal with the cases cited above without giving up utilitarianism. For it can allow that the poor man's act may produce the greatest general balance of good over evil in his particular situation, and yet maintain that he ought not do it because of what would happen if all the poor and needy were to steal from the rich. Here one might ask why we must always ask "What if everybody did that?" and not just "What if I do that?" The poor man, for example, might say, "I grant that if everyone in a like case were to do what I am doing the results would be bad. But in my instance it is certain that not everyone who is in a like case will do what I am doing. My action will not set an example, since others do not know about it, and it does admittedly produce a greater general balance of good over evil than the other actions open to me. Why shouldn't I do it?" The GU might then answer by pointing out that if everyone were to proceed on this AU basis, their conclusions might be misled by prejudice, passion, ignorance, and so on; but the poor man could reply once more that, by hypothesis, he is not being misled in any such ways. The GU's final answer must be an appeal to the principle that if an action is right for me to do in my situation, then it is right for everyone to do who is similarly situated in relevant respects. Now, this principle cannot be derived from the principle of utility, but is independent of it, and so one might think that in appealing to it the GU is appealing to another moral principle besides that of utility, thus giving up his ship. But the additional principle he is making use of is simply the principle of universalizability, which was mentioned earlier in our discussion of act-deontplogical theories, and which must be admitted by everyone who judges anything to be right or wrong, including our poor man. The real question at issue is whether the GU (or anyone else) must recognize any basic moral principle besides the principle of universalizability (if this is a moral principle, which I and many others doubt) and the principle of utility.

One might ask at this point whether GU does follow from the two principles just mentioned. This, however, is a much debated question today, and one which we cannot go into. But is the GU's answer to the poor man, the non-voter, etc., adequate anyway? This may be doubted. Cannot the poor man, for example, always fall back on a more careful description of his case and claim that the results would not be bad even if everyone situated like him, in exactly'or sufficiently similar ways, were to do what he does? If so, it does not seem that the GU can show his action to be wrong. Then, either one must admit his action to be right or one must reject utilitarianism and contend, as Ewing does, that the poor man's action for the non-voter's, etc.) is wrong on non-utilitarian grounds -- because it is in some way unfair or unjust for an individual to take advantage of and profit by the fact that others in similar situations do not steal (or abstain from voting, etc.) or to benefit from a system of rules and cooperative activity in which he does not do his part.

Well, perhaps one can switch from GU to rule-utilitarianism.


Rule-utilitarianism (RU) is a rather different view, which has also been attributed to Mill and has been finding favor recently. Like rule-deontologism, it emphasizes the centralitv of rules in morality and insists that we are generally, if not always, to tell what to do in particular situations by appeal to a rule like that of truth-telling rather than by asking what particular action will have the best consequences in the situation in question. But, unlike deontologism, it adds that we are always to determine our rules by asking which rules will promote the greatest general good for everyone. That is, the question is not which action has the greatest utility, but which rule has. The principle of utility comes in, normally at least, not in determining what particular action to perform (this is normally determined by the rules), but in determining what the rules shall be. Rules must be selected, maintained, revised, and replaced on the basis of their utility and not on any other basis. The principle of utility is still the ultimate standard, but it is to be appealed to at the level of rules rather than at the level of particular judgments. This view has been advocated by a number of writers from Bishop Berkeley to R. B. Brandt.

The AU may allow rules to be used; but if he does, he must conceive of a rule like "Tell the truth" as follows: "Telling the truth is generally for the greatest general good." By contrast, the RU must conceive of it thus: "Our always telling the truth is for the greatest general good." Or thus: "It is for the greatest good if we always tell the truth."

This means that for the RU it may be right to obey a rule like telling the truth simply because it is so useful to have the rule, even when, in the particular case in question, telling the truth does not lead to the best consequences.

An analogy may help here. On a particular occasion, I might ask which side of the street I should drive on, the right or the left. To find the answer, I would not try to see which alternative is for the greatest general good; instead, I would ask or try to determine what the law is. The law says that we are always to drive down the right side of the street (with exceptions in the case of passing, one-way streets, and so forth). The reason for the law is that it is for the greatest general good that we always drive down a certain side of the street instead of driving, on each occasion, down the side it seems to us most useful to drive on on that occasion. Here, for the greatest general good, we must have a rule of the always-acting kind (with the exceptions built into the rule, hence not really exceptions). If we suppose that for some reason there are special difficulties about our driving on the left, it will follow on utilitarian grounds that we should have a law telling us always to drive on the right. This, although the example comes from law, illustrates the RU conception of how we are to determine what is the morally right or obligatory thing to do.

If we ask why we should be RUs rather than AUs, the RU may answer, as Berkeley did, by pointing to the difficulties (difficulties due to ignorance, bias, passion, carelessness, lack of time, etc.) that would arise if, on each occasion of action, everyone were permitted to decide for himself what he should do, even if he had the help of such rules of thumb as the modified AU offers. The RU may then argue that it is for the greatest general good to have everyone acting wholly or at least largely on rules of the always-acting; type instead of always making decisions on an AU basis. This would be a utilitarian argument for RU; and, as an argument, it has some plausibility.

RU may take various forms, depending on how it conceives of the rules that are so important in its scheme. In one form of RU, which has been called primitive-rule-utilitarianism (PRU), the rules simply formulate the conclusions the GU would come to, e.g., to vote on election days. It is just GU in a new dress. There is also what is called actual-rule-utilitarianism (ARU). It holds that an action is right if it conforms to the accepted or prevailing moral rules and wrong if it does not, assuming that these rules are those whose acceptance and observance is conducive to the greatest general good or at least a necessary condition of it. The type of RU that seems to be favored today is ideal-rule-utilitarianism (IRU), of which there are two main kinds. One holds that an act is right if and only if it conforms to a set of rules general conformity to which would maximize utility: the other that an act is right it and only if it conforms to a set of rules general acceptance of which would maximize utility, where acceptance of a rule is thought of as falling somewhat short of conformity to it. Of course, to make his normative ethics complete the RU must tell us which rules fulfill his stated requirements.

It has been claimed that GU, PRU and the first kind of IRU are ultimately equivalent to AU. The argumentation here is too long to repeat and very difficult to assess, but of course, if it is correct, then these forms of utilitarianism are no better than AU. In any case, PRU is equivalent to GU and in the same boat. ARU seems questionable on the face of it, since it is very unlikely that the actually accepted moral rules of a society are all conducive to its greatest welfare or even necessary for its existence; this difficulty is compounded, moreover, by the fact that the prevailing rules vary considerably from society to society and change somewhat from time to time, so that it is hard to see how they might even be thought to maximize utility in the world as a whole. As for the two forms of IRU -- there are various problems about them, but I shall try to dispose of them by stating an objection that seems to me to hold against all forms of utilitarianism, since they all make maximizing the general balance of good over evil the sole ultimate criterion of right and wrong in morality, though some do it directly and others indirectly. This objection is a generalization of an argument that has been used against AU by Sidgwick and many others.

Whether the utilitarian talks in terms of particular actions (AU), general practices (GU), or rules and sets of rules (RU), we may imagine that two of them are such that we must choose between them and such that, if we knew the results of both of them (i.e., both actions, practices, or rules), we would find that they are equal in utility, that is, they bring about the same balance of good over evil in the long run for the universe as a whole. Then the utilitarian must say that their moral score is the same and there is no basis for choosing between them. It still may be, however, that they distribute the balance of good over evl produced in rather different ways; one action, practice, or rule may, for example, give all the good to a relatively small group of people without any merit on their part (and to let merit count at this point is already to give up pure utilitarianism), while the other may spread the good more equally over a larger segment of the population. In this case, it seems to me that we should and would say that the former is unjust and wrong and the latter morally preferable. If this is so, we must give up utilitarianism in all its forms.

The point is that an action, practice, or rule may maximize the sum of good in the world, and yet be unjust in the way in which it distributes this sum, so that a less beneficent one that is more just may be preferable. For instance, it might be for the greatest general good to follow the rule of primogeniture, and yet it might be unjust to do so. If this is so, then the criterion for determining right and wrong is not mere utility but also justice. Consequently, some kind of deontological theory is the true one, for what is just is independent of the principle of utility. If justice may overrule utility on occasion, then the question of what is right cannot be answered by appeal to the principle of utility and the deontologists are correct after all, at least in part.

Utilitarians may make threp replies to this argument. One is offered by John Stuart Mill near the end of Utilitarianism. He contends that whatever satisfies the principle of utility also satisfies the requirements of justice, since justice is built into the principle of utility.

[Social and distributive justice] is involved in the very meaning of utility, or the greatest happiness principle. That principle is a mere form of words. . .unless one person's happiness, supposed equal in degree . . . , is counted for exactly as much as another's. Those conditions being supplied, Bentham's dictum, "everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one," might be written under the principle of utility as an explanatory commentary.
Here Mill is confused. It is true that the principle of utility requires us, when we are determining what to do, to count the effects of each action, practice, or rule on everyone and to weigh equal effects equally in the computation of the scores for each action or rule no matter who is concerned. But in our example, we have done all that by hypothesis and the score still comes out even. It remains true that the two alternatives distribute the same amount of good in different ways. The principle of utility cannot tell us which distribution to choose; only a separate principle of justice can tell us this.

Mill might answer that we should understand the principle of utility as enjoining us to promote the greatest good of the greatest number, which is, in fact, how it is often formulated. If we understand it thus, the principle does tell us that we are to distribute a given quantity of good to more people rather than to fewer, when we have a choice. The principle of utility thus becomes a double principle: it tells us (1) to produce the greatest possible balance of good over evil and (2 ) to distribute this as widely as possible. That is, it has become a combination of the principle of utility with a principle of justice, and to read it thus is to give up pure utilitarianism for the view we are about to describe.

The second reply has been proposed by John Laird, Ewing, and others. If we give up hedonism, they point out, we can hold that there are a number of different kinds of things that are good: pleasure, knowledge, love, aesthetic experience, and the like. We can even hold that one of the good things to be promoted is an equal or just distribution of the other things. Then when we are calculating our scores, we must figure in, not only the value of the pleasure and other such goods that are produced, but also the value of the pattern of distribution involved. This sounds like a plausible view, and it does, if accepted, take care of my general objection to utilitarianism. I find it unconvincing, however, for the following reason. As will be apparent in Chapter 5, it seems clear to me that pjeasure, knowledge, and many other experiences and activities are good in themselves; but I do not see that a pattern of distribution is also a nonmorally good thing in itself. I think it may be morally right in itself to bring about such a pattern, however, and so I conclude that those who take the view just described are confusing rightness with goodness. Indeed, I suspect they find that view plausible only because it seems to provide a way of meeting the difficulty in question. If this is so, then their reply fails -- in fact, it lends support to my contention that certain patterns of distributing things are right in themselves and not merely because of what they are conducive to.

These first two replies could be made by utilitarians of other sorts, but the third only by an RU like Brandt. He might contend that a certain principle for distributing the good, e.g., that we should distribute it as widely and equally as possible, is itself one of the rules the general acceptance of which would maximize utility. In other words, he might maintain that the necessary principle of distributive justice can itself be established by a rule-utilitarian line of reasoning. Such a reply can be satisfactory, if at all, only if it is a fact that the rule of distribution specified is more conducive to the greatest general balance of good over evil than alternative rules. This, however, cannot be shown to be a fact. If it is not a fact, my general objection to utilitarianism holds. But suppose it were the case that the rule of distributing equally, say, would maximize utility. Then RU would be saved only by a lucky fact about' the world, provided, of course, that it is free from other fatal objections. This bothers me. For then the RU must say that, if the rule of distributing equally were not utility-maximizing, then it would not be valid. But this is just the issue, and to me it seems clear that the equal distribution rule would be valid anyway.

All this is not to say that RU is mistaken in thinking that such more specific rules as are usually thought of as belonging to morality can be established on its grounds, or in thinking that such rules should sometimes be acted on even when doing so does not maximize utility in that particular case. I believe that RUs and the rule-deontologists are right in holding that morality must include such rules and regard them as stronger than rules of thumb -- as rules of prima facie duty in Ross's sense. This seems to me to follow if we give up AU theories (and my general objection holds against them in any case), as well as act-deontological ones.


So far in this chapter I have been trying to show that we cannot be satisfied with the principle of utility as our sole basic standard of right and wrong in morality, whether it is applied in AU, GU, or RU style. In particular, I have contended that we should recognize a principle of justice to guide our distribution of good and evil that is independent of any principle about maximizing the balance of good over evil in the world. It may still be, of course, that we should recognize other independent principles as well, as deontologists like Ross think, e.g., that of keeping promises. Now I shall try to present the theory of obligation that seems to rne most satisfactory from the moral point of view.

What precedes suggests that perhaps we should recognize two basic principles of obligation, the principle of utility and some principle of justice. The resulting theory would be a deontological one, but it would be much closer to utilitarianism than most deontological theories; we might call it a mixed deontological theory. It might maintain that all of our more specific rules of obligation, like that of keeping promises, and all of our judgments about what to do in particular situations can be derived, directly or indirectly, from its two principles. It might even insist that we are to determine what is right or wrong in particular situations, normally at least, by consulting rules such as we usually associate with morality, but add that the way to tell what rules to live by is to see which rules best fulfill the joint requirements of utility and justice (not, as in RU, the requirements of utility alone). This view is still faced with the problem of measuring and balancing amounts of good and evil, and, since it recognizes two basic .principles, it must also face the problem of possible conflict between them. This means that it must regard its two principles as principles of prima facie, not of actual duty; and it must, if our above argument is correct, allow that the principle of justice may take precedence over that of utility, at least on some occasions, though perhaps not always. However, it may not be able to provide any formula saying when justice takes precedence and when it does not.

Should we adopt this theory of obligation? To my mind, it is close to the truth but not quite right. Let us begin, however, by asking whether we should recognize the principle of utility at all. It seems to me we must at least recognize something like it as one of our basic premises. Whether we have even a prima facie obligation to maximize the balance of good over evil depends, in part, on whether it makes sense to talk about good and evil in quantitative terms. Assuming that it makes at least rough sense, it is not easy to deny, as pure deontologists do, that one of the things we ought to do, other things being equal, is to bring about as much of a balance of good over evil as we can, which even Ross, Carritt, and perhaps Butler, allow. I find it hard to believe that any action or rule can be right, wrong, or obligatory in the moral sense, if there is no good or evil connected with it in any way, directly or indirectly. This does not mean that there are no other factors affecting their rightness or wrongness, or that our only duty is to pile up the biggest possible stockpile of what is good, as utilitarians think; but it does imply that we do have, at least as one of our prima facie obligations, that of doing something about the good and evil in the world.

In fact, I wish to contend that we do not have any moral obligations, prima facie or actual, to do anything that does not, directly or indirectly have some connection with what makes somebody's life good or bad, better or worse. If not our particular actions, then at least our rules must have some bearing on the increase of good or decrease of evil or on their distribution. Morality was made for man, not man for morality. Even justice is concerned about the distribution of good and evil. In other words all of our duties, even that of justice, presuppose the existence of good and evil and some kind of concern about their existence and incidence. To this extent, and only to this extent, is the old dictum that love is what underlies and unifies the rules of morality correct. It is the failure to recognize the importance of this point that makes so many deontological systems unsatisfactory. To say this is to say not only that we have no obligations except when some improvement or impairment of someone's life is involved but also that we have a prima facie ohligation whenever this is involved. To quote William James's inimitable way of putting it:

Take any demand, however slight, which any creature, however weak, may make. Ought it not, for its own sole sake, to be satisfied? If not, prove why not.3


If this is so, then we must grant that the utilitarians have hold of an important part of the truth, and that we must recognize something like the principle of utility as one of our basic premises. Still, I do not think that we can regard the principle of utility itself as a basic principle of utility itself as a basic premise, and my reason is that something more basic underlies it. By the principle of utility I have meant and shall continue to mean, quite strictly, the principle that we ought to do the act or follow the practice or rule that will or probably will bring about the greatest possible balance of good over evil in the universe. It seems clear, however, that this principle presupposes another one that is more basic, namely, that we ought to do good and to prevent or avoid doing harm. If we did not have this more basic obligation, we could have no duty to try to realize the greatest balance of good over evil. In fact the principle of utility represents a compromise with the ideal. The ideal is to do only good and not to do any harm (omitting justice for the moment). But this is often impossible, and then we seem forced to try to bring about the best possible balance of good over evil. If this is so, then the principle of utility presupposes a more basic principle -- that of producing good as such and preventing evil. We have a prima facie obligation to maximize the balance of good over evil only if we have a prior prima facie obligation to do good and prevent harm. I shall call this prior principle the principle of beneficence. The reason I call it the principle of beneficence and not the principle of benevolence is to underline the fact that it asks us actually to do good and not evil, not merely to want or will to do so.

It might be thought that the principle of utility not only presupposes the principle of beneficence but follows from it. This, however, is not the case. The principle of utility is stated in quantitative terms and presupposes that goods and evils can be measured and balanced in some way. The principle of beneficence does not deny this, of course, but neither does jit imply this. In applying it in practice one hopes that goods and evils can to a considerable extent at least be measured and balanced, but the principle of beneficence does not itself require that this be always possible; it is, for example, compatible with Mill's insistence that pleasures and pains, and hence goods and evils, differ in quality as well as quantity. I take this to be an advantage of the principle of beneficence over that of utility as I have stated it. There is another advantage. Suppose we have two acts, A and B, and that A produces 99 units of good and no evil, while B produces both good and evil but has a net balance of 100 units of good over evil. In this case, act-utilitarianism requires us to say that B is the right thing to do. But some of us would surely think that act A is the right one, and the principle of beneficence permits one to say this, though it does not require us to do so.

I propose, then, that we take as the basic premises of our theory of right and wrong two principles, that of beneficence and some principle of just distribution. To this proposal it might be objected that, although the principle of justice cannot be derived from that of beneficence, it is possible to derive the principle of beneficence from that of justice. For, if one does not increase the good of others and decrease evil for them when one can do so and when no conflicting obligations are present, then one is being unjust. Hence, justice implies beneficence (when possible and not ruled out by other considerations). In reply, I want to agree that in some sense beneficence is right and failure to be beneficent wrong under the conditions specified, but I want to deny that they are, respectively, just or unjust, properly speaking. Not everything that is right is just, and not everything that is.wrong is unjust. Incest, even if it is wrong, can hardly be called unjust. Cruelty to children may be unjust, if it involves treating them differently from adults, but it is surely wrong anyway. Giving another person pleasure may be right, without its being properly called just at all. The area of justice is a part of morality but not the whole of it. Beneficence, then, may belong to the other part of morality, and this is just what seems to me to be the case. Even Mill makes a distinction between justice and the other obligations of morality, and puts charity or beneficence among the latter. So does Portia when she says to Shylock,

And earthly power doth then show likest God's When mercy seasons justice.

It has been contended, nevertheless, that we do not have, properly speaking, a duty or obligation to be beneficent. From this point of view, being beneficent is considered praiseworthy and virtuous, but is beyond the call of moral duty. All that morality can: demand of us is justice, keeping promises, and the like, not beneficence. There is some truth in this. It is not always strictly wrong not to perform an act of beneficence even when one can, for example, not giving someone else one's concert ticket. Not giving him the ticket is only strictly wrong if he has a right to my beneficence, and this he does not always have. It may still be, however, that in some wider sense of "ought," I ought to be beneficent, perhaps even to give my ticket to another who needs it more. Kant made a similar point by saying that beneficence is an "imperfect" duty; one ought to be beneficent, he thought, but one has some choice about the occasions on which to do good. In any case, it is certainly wrong, at least prima facie, to inflict evil or pain on anyone, and to admit this is to admit that the principle of beneficence is partly correct.

A point about our use of terms may help here. The terms "duty," ''obligation," and "ought to be done" are often used interchangeably, especially by philosophers, for example, in this book. This is true even to some extent in ordinary discourse. But in our more careful ordinary discourse we tend to use "duty" when we have in mind some rule like "Tell the truth" or some role or office like that of a father or secretary, and to use "obligation" when we have in mind the law or some agreement or promise. In these cases we tend to think that one person has a duty or obligation and another has a correlative right. The expression "ought to do," however, is used in a wider sense to cover things we would not regard as strict duties or obligations or think another person has a right to. Thus, it is natural to say that one ought to go the second mile, not so natural to say one has a duty or obligation to do this, and quite unnatural to say that the other person has a right to expect one to do it. This will help to explain why some assert and others deny that beneficence is a requirement of morality. The matter, it should be observed, is made all the more difficult by two further facts: on the one hand, that "right" sometimes means "ought to be done" and sometimes means only "not wrong," and on the other, that wrong is used as the opposite of all the other expressions mentioned, and so has somewhat different forces in different contexts.

One more remark is worth making. Even if one holds that beneficence is not a requirement of morality but something supererogatory and morally good, one is still regarding beneficence as an important part of morality -- as desirable if not required.

What does the principle of beneficence say? Four things, I think:

  1. One ought not to inflict evil or harm (what is bad).
  2. One ought to prevent evil or harm.
  3. One ought to remove evil.
  4. One ought to do or promote good.
These four things are different, but they may appropriately be regarded as part of the principle of beneficence. Of the four, it is most plausible to say that (4) is not a duty in the strict sense. In fact, one is inclined to say that in some sense (1) takes precedence over (2), (2) over (3), and (3) over (4), other things being equal. But all are, at any rate, principles of prima facie duty. By adding "to or for anyone" at the end of each of them one makes the principle of beneficence universalistic, by adding "to or for others" one makes it altruistic. What one does here depends on whether he is willing to say that one has moral duties to oneself or not. For example, does one have a moral duty not to sacrifice any of ones own happiness for that of another? We shall look at this question again later.

It is tempting to think that, since the first four parts of the principle of beneficence may come into conflict with one another in choice situations, say, between actions both of which do some good and some evil, we should regard it as having a fifth part that instructs us, in such cases, to do what will bring about the greatest balance of good over evil. This would, however, presuppose that good and evil can always be measured in some way and lose the advantages ascribed to the principle of beneficence over the principle of utility; in fact, it would make the former equivalent to the latter in practice, since we are always choosing between two courses of action, even if one of them is called "inaction." Even so, we may perhaps follow this instruction -- or the principle of utility -- as a heuristic maxim in conflict situations involving only the principle of beneficence, at least insofar as the goods and evils involved are susceptible of some kind of measuring and balancing, though remembering its limitations.

There are many rules of prima facie right, wrong, or obligation, to be used in determining our actual duties, which can be derived from the principle of beneficence. Wherever one can form a general statement about what affects the lives of people for better or for worse, there one has a valid principle of prima facie duty, for example, "One ought not to kick people in the shin" or "We ought to promote knowledge." Most of the usual rules -- keeping promises, telling the truth, showing gratitude, making reparation, not interfering with liberty, etc. -- can be seen on this basis to be valid prima facie rules. For instance, given the principle of beneficence and the fact that knowing the truth is.a good (m itself or as a means), it follows that telling the truth is a prima facie duty.

Thus, some of our rules of prima facie duty follow directly from the principle of beneficence. The rule of telling the truth can probably be defended also (perhaps with certain built-in exceptions) on the ground that its adoption makes for the greatest general good -- as rule-utilitarians hold. ^

However, not all of our prima facie obligations can be derived from the principle of beneficence any more than from that of utility. For the principle of beneficience does not tell us how we are to distribute goods and evils; it only tells us to produce the one and prevent the other. When conflicting claims are made upon us, the most it could do (and we saw it cannot strictly even do this) is to instruct us to promote the greatest balance of good over evil and, as we have already seen, we need something more. This is where a principle of justice must come in.


We have seen that we must recognize a basic principle of justice. But which one? What is justice? We cannot go into the whole subject of social justice here, but we must at least complete our outline of a normative theory of moral obligation, in which the principle of justice, plays a crucial role. We are talking here about distributive justice, justice in the distribution of good and evil. There is also retributive justice (punishment, etc.), about which a little will be said in Chapter 4. Distributive justice is a matter of the comparative treatment of individuals. The paradigm case of injustice is that in which there are two similar individuals in similar circumstances and one of them is treated better or worse than the other. In this case, the cry of injustice rightly goes up against the responsible agent or group; and unless that agent or group can establish that there is some relevant dissimilarity after all between the individuals concerned and their circumstances, he or they will be guilty as charged. This is why, Sidgwick suggested his formula, according to which justice is the similar and injustice the dissimilar treatment of similar cases. This formula does give a necessary condition of justice; similar cases are to be treated similarly so far as the requirements of justice are concerned, although these requirements may be outweighed by other considerations. But Sidgwick's formula is not sufficient. All it really says is that we must act according to rules if we mean to be just. Although this formula is correct as far as it goes, it tells us nothing about what the rules are to be, and this is what we want to know, since we have already seen that rules themselves may be unjust. If this were not so, there could be no unjust laws or practices, for laws and prnctices are rules. Much depends, as we shall see, on which similarities and dissimilarities of individuals are taken as a basis for similarity or dissimilarity of treatment.

The question remaining to be answered is how we are to tell what rules of distribution or comparative treatment we are to act on. We have seen that these rules cannot be determined on the basis of beneficence alone (as I think the rules of not injuring anyone and of keeping covenants can be). A number of criteria have been proposed by different thinkers:

  1. that justice is dealing with people according to their deserts or merits;
  2. that it is treating human beings as equals in the sense of distributing good and evil equally among them, excepting perhaps in the case of punishment;
  3. that it is treating people according to their needs, their abilities, or both.
An example of the first is the classical meritarian criterion of justice as found in Aristotle and Ross. According to this view, the criterion of desert or merit is virtue, and justice is distributing the good (e.g., happiness) in accordance with virtue. One might, of course, adopt some other criterion of merit, for example, ability, contribution, intelligence, blood, color, social rank, or wealth, and then justice would consist in distributing good and evil in accordance with this criterion. The second criterion is the equalitarian one that is characteristic of modern democratic theory. The third is also a modern view, and may take various forms; its most prominent form today is the Marxist dictum, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." I shall argue for the second view.

Some of the criteria of merit mentioned seem to be palpably nonmoral or even unjust, for example, the use of blood, color, intelligence, sex, social rank, or wealth as a basis for one's rules of distribution. Use of ability as a basis would give us a form of the third view. This leaves moral and/or non-moral virtue as possible criteria of merit. Should we adopt a meritarian theory of this Aristotle-Ross sort? It seems to me that virtue, moral or nonmoral, cannot be our basic criterion in matters of distributive justice, because a recognition of any kind of virtue as a basis of distribution is justified only if every individual has an equal chance of achieving all the virtue of that kind he is capable of (and it must not be assumed that they have all had this chance, for they have not). If the individuals competing for goods, positions, and the like have not had an equal chance to achieve all the virtue they are capable of, then virtue is not a fair basis for distributing such things among them. If this is so, then, before virtue can reasonably be adopted as a basis of distribution, there must first be a prior equal distribution of the conditions for achieving virtue, at least insofar as this is within the control of human society. This is where equality of opportunity, equality before the law, and equality of access to the means of education come in. In other words, recognition of virtue as a basis of distribution is reasonable only against the background of an acknowledgment of the principle of equality. The primary criterion of distributive justice, then, is not merit in the form of virtue of some kind or other, but equality.

One might object here that there is another kind of merit, namely, effort and that effort made should be taken as a basis of distribution in at least certain kinds of cases. This is true, but again, it does seem to me that effort cannot serve as our basic criterion of distribution, and that recognition of it in any defensible way presupposes the general notion that we should all be treated equally.

We certainly must consider abilities and needs in determining how we are to treat others. This is required by the principle of beneficence, for it asks us to be concerned about the goodness of their lives, which involves catering to their needs and fostering and making use of their abilities. But is it required by the principle of justice? More particularly, does the principle of justice require us to help people in proportion to their needs or to call on them in proportion to their abilities? It is wrong to ask more of people than they can do or to assign them tasks out of proportion to their ability, but this is because "ought" implies "can." Justice asks us to do something about cases of special need; for example, it asks us to give special attention to people with certain kinds of handicaps, because only with such attention can they have something comparable to an equal chance with others of enjoying a good life. But does it always ask us, at least prima facie, to proportion our help to their needs and our demands to their abilities? Are we always prima facie unjust if we help A in proportion to his needs but not B, or if we make demands of C in proportion to his abilities but not of D? It seems to me that the basic question is whether or not in so doing we are showing an equal concern for the goodness of the lives of A and B or of C and D. Whether we should treat them in proportion to their needs and abilities depends, as far as justice is concerned, on whether doing so helps or hinders them equally in the achievement of the best lives they are capable of. If helping them in proportion to their needs is necessary for making an equal contribution to the goodness of their lives, then and only then is it unjust to do otherwise. If asking of them in proportion to their abilities is necessary for keeping their chances of a good life equal, then and only then is it unjust to do otherwise. In other words, the basic standard of distributive justice is equality of treatment. That, for instance, is why justice calls for giving extra attention to handicapped people.

If this is correct, then we must adopt the equalitarian view of distributive justice. In other words, the principle of justice lays upon us the prima facie obligation of treating people equally. Here we have the answer to our question. This does not mean that it is prima facie unjust to treat people of the same color differently or to treat people of different heights similarly. Color and height are not morally relevant similarities or dissimilarities. Those that are relevant are the ones that bear on the goodness or badness of people's lives, for example, similarities or dissimilarities in ability, interet or need. Treating people equally does not mean treating them identically; justice is not so monotonous as all that. It means making the same relative cotribution to the goodness of their lives (this is equal help or helping according to need) or asking the same relative sacrifice (this is asking in accordance with ability).

Treating people equally in this sense does not mean making their lives equally good or maintaining their lives at the same level of goodness. It would be a mistake to think that justice requires this. For, though people are equally capable of some kind of good life (or least bad one), the kinds of life of which they are capable are not equally good. The lives of which some are capable simply are better, nonmorally as well as morally, than those of which others are capable. In this sense men are not equal, since they are not equal in their capacities. They are equal only in the sense that they ought prima facie to be treated equally, and they ought to be treated equally only in the sense that we ought prima facie to make proportionally the same contribution to the goodness of their lives, once a certain minimum has been achieved by all. This is what is meant by the equal intrinsic dignity or value of the individual that is such an important concept in our culture.

We must remember that this equality of treatment, though it is a basic obligation, is only a prima facie one, and that it may on occasion (and there is no formula for determining the occasions) be overruled by the principle of beneficence. We may claim, however, that in distributing goods and evils, help, tasks, roles, and so forth, people are to be treated equally in the sense indicated, except when unequal treatment can be justified by considerations of beneficence (including utility) or on the ground that it will promote greater equality in the long run. Unequal treatment always requires justification and only certain kinds of justification suffice.

It is in the light of the preceding discussion, it seems to me, that we must try to solve such social problems as education, economic opportunity, racial integration, and aid to underdeveloped countries, remembering always that the principle of beneficence requires us to respect the liberty of others. Our discussion provides only the most general guide lines for solving such problems, of course, but most of what is needed in addition is good will, clarity of thought, and knowledge of the relevant facts.


We have now arrived at a mixed deontological theory of obligation somewhat different from the one tentatively sketched earlier. It takes as basic the principle of beneficence (not that of utility) and the principle of justice, now identified as equal treatment. Must we recognize any other basic principles of right and wrong? It seems to me that we need not. As far as I can see, we can derive all of the things we may wish to recognize as duties from our two principles, either directly as the r.row flies or indirectly as. the ruie-utilitarian does. From the former follow various more specific rules of prima facie obligation, for example, those of not injuring anyone, and of not interfering with another's liberty. From the latter follow others like equality of consideration and equality before the law. Some, like telling the truth or not being cruel to children, may follow separately from both principles, which may give them a kind of priority they might not otherwise have. Others, like keeping promises and not crossing university lawns, may perhaps be justified in rule-utilitarian fashion on the basis of the two principles taken jointly, as being rules whose general acceptance and obedience is conducive to a state of affairs in which a maximal balance of good over evil is as equally distributed as possible (the greatest good of the greatest number).


Several problems facing this theory remain to be discussed. One is the problem of possible conflict between its two principles. I see no way out of this. It does seem to me that the two principles may come into conflict, both at the level of individual action and at that of social policy, and I know of no formula that will always tell us how to solve such conflicts or even how to solve conflicts between their corollaries. It is tempting to say that the principle of justice always takes precedence over that of beneficence: do justice though the heavens fall. But is a small injustice never to be preferred to a great evil? Perhaps we should lean over backwards to avoid committing injustice, but are we never justified in treating people unequally? One might contend that the principle of equal treatment always has priority at least over the fourth or positive part of the principle of beneficence, but is it never right to treat people unequally when a considerable good is at stake? The answer to these questions, I regret to say, does not seem to me to be clearly negative, and I am forced to conclude that the problem of conflict that faced the pluralistic deontological theories discussed earlier is still with us. One can only hope that, if we take the moral point of view, become clearheaded, and come to know all that is relevant, we will also come to agree on ways of acting that are satisfactory to all concerned.

The following reflection may be encouraging in this respect. It seems to me that everyone who takes the moral point of view can agree that the ideal state, of affairs is one in which everyone has the best life he or she is capable of. Now, in such a state of affairs, it is clear that the concerns of both the principle of justice or equality and the principle of beneficence will be fulfilled. If so, then we can see that the two principles are in some sense ultimately consistent, and this seems to imply that increasing insight may enable us to know more and more how to solve the conflicts that trouble us now when we know so little about realizing the ideal state of affairs in which the principles are at one. Then, while Ross is right in saying that we must finally appeal to "perception." we can at least give an outline of what that perception is supposed to envision.


Another problem about our two principles may be posed by saying that they ask too much of us and tell us too little. Just look at them! One asks us to do good and to eschew and eliminate evil. But there is so much good to be done and so much evil to eliminate that one hardly knows where to begin and cannot relax once one has begun. And what about the concert ticket case? The other principle asks us to treat everyone equally. Does this mean that I must treat all children equally -- that, if I pay my child's tuition, I must pay every other child's tuition? Thus one could go on, arguing that our two principles are too utopian, demanding, impractical, and unhelpful for words. This is a large topic with many facets, but one point seems clear: even if I was right in maintaining earlier that the two principles need not be supplemented by any other basic principles, as Ross thinks, they must still be supplemented in some way (even if we forget about problems of conflict between them) if we are to act on them in any sensible manner.

In answer to this difficulty I venture the following line of thought. Writers have pointed out that customs and laws may function to tell us how to do what morality asks us to do. For example, customs tell us how to show gratitude or respect, and laws show us how to provide for our children. Perhaps, then, one can argue that we need things like custom and law to help us to channel our activities in the way of applying the principles of beneficence and equality -- that society must provide us with a set of mores and institutions in terms of which to operate. Take the institution of the family, for instance. It may be thought of, among other things, as directing me, say, to pay my child's tuition, and other fathers to do likewise for their children. Then, ideally, even though I do not extend my beneficence equally to all children, which is impractical in any case, all children will come out equally well treated. It still remains true, of course, that the principle of justice tells me I must treat all of my own children equally, but I need not take it to require me to do as well by everyone else's children, since the system is supposed to provide for them. Naturally, where the system fails, as it all too often does, I must still try to do something to help other children too, either directly or by seeking to improve the system.

Just what institutions society should set up is another question. I took the family only as an example. The institutions may, in fact, vary from society to society, and some societies may substitute something else for the family. In any case, however, the institutions provided by a society should themselves be beneficent and equalizing as possible. They are only ancillary and supplemental to the principles of morality^ and must, as Aquinas said of human law, be consistent with these principles, even if they cannot be deduced from them.


What about duties to self? Has one any moral duties when other people and animals are in no way involved, directly or indirectly? This again is a large and much-debated question. A great deal can be said for a negative answer to it. On the other hand, if our two principles are to be universal in scope, they must be construed as applying to myself as well as to others, so that my duties of beneficence and equal treatment cover myself as well as them. But am I doing what is morally wrong if I take less than my share? Everyone else has at least an imperfect duty to be beneficent and equalitarian in relation to me, and I have a right to my share, but do I have a duty to take it when doing so does not deprive another of his? And, if I prefer strawberry to peach jam for breakfast, is it wrong for me to take peach? I myself have much sympathy with Kant's position that one has no moral duty to promote one's own happiness, even if one does have such a duty to cultivate one's talents, respect one's own dignity, and not to commit suicide. Yet it does seem somehow arbitrary to say that our two principles must be understood by each of us as directing him to consider only the goodness of everyone else's life and not that of his own.

Once more, I venture a suggestion. It is that in theory the principles apply to everyone, that is, not only is everyone to live by them, but their scope extends to everyone, including oneself. Nevertheless, because we humans are already so prone to take care of our own welfare (even though psychological egoism is false), it is practically strategic for us in our ordinary moral living to talk, think, and feel as if we do not have a duty to do so. Kant may still be right, however, in thinking that even our practical morality should recognize such duties as respecting one's own dignity.


Finally, are there any absolute rules, any rules or principles of actual duty in Ross's sense, positive or negative, that hold without exception? Kant thinks there are, but in the theory I have presented there are not, just as there are not in Ross's theory. For I have interpreted my basic principle and their corollaries all as being prima facie ones that may on occasion be overruled by others. Actually, I doubt that there are any substantive principles or rules of actual duty that ought always to be acted on or never violated, even when they, conflict with others.

Here something depends on the use of terms. Is murder ever right? In a way not, since the very word suggests wrongful killing. The same is true of other words. It is better to ask if killing is ever right than if murder is, or if taking something from another without his consent is ever right than if stealing is. Then the answer is less clearly negative.

Something also depends on the kind of rules one is talking about. In the next chapter we shall find that one can speak of rules of action or doing and rules of character or being. Now, it is more plausible to regard a rule like "Be courageous" or "Be conscientious" as absolute than one like "Tell the truth." Here, however, I am concerned with rules of action or doing.

Even though I think that no such rules are absolute, as Fletcher does, I do still believe, as against him, that some kinds of action are intrinsically wrong, for example, killing people and lying to them. In denying that any kind of action is intrinsically right or wrong Fletcher is implying that killing and lying are as such morally neutral, which strikes me as incredible. They are, in Ross's terms, always prima facie wrong, and they are always actually wrong when they are not justified on other moral grounds. They are not in themselves morally indifferent. They may conceivably be justified in certain situations, but they always need to be justified; and, even when they are justified, there is still one moral point against them. Fletcher fails to distinguish between saying that killing and lying are always actually wrong and saying that they are intrinsically prima facie wrong, because he fails to see the force of Ross's distinction. Ross's words "prima facie" are somewhat misleading, because a prima facie duty, as he sees it, does have a kind of absoluteness; in a sense they have no exceptions as such -- for example, lying is always prima facie wrong (always really has a wrong-making feature) and is always actually wrong unless it is made right by being necessary to avoid a great evil or by some other moral fact about it. In this sense, there are many absolute rules -- our two principles and all their corollaries.


There is an ethical theory that has been and still is widely accepted, especially in Judeo-Christian circles, namely, the ethics of love. This holds that there is only one basic ethical imperative -- to love -- and that all the others are to be derived from it.

Thou shah love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matt. 22:37-40).
We may call this view agapism. In spite of its prevalence, it is generally neglected in philosophical introductions to ethics like this, yet just because of its prevalence, it is desirable to relate it to the theories discussed and adopted here and to say something about it.

How one classifies agapism depends on how one interprets it and, unfortunately, its theological exponents have been neither clear nor of one mind about this. Philosophers, if they mention it at all, tend to identify the ethics of love with utilitarianism, as Mill did and as A. C. Garnett does. Theologians, however, would generally reject this utilitarian conception of their ethical principle, though Fletcher accepts it. In fact, it is hard to see how agapism, as stated in the above text, can be put down as a pure teleological theory at all, for, although one might argue that loving thy neighbor means promoting his good, one can hardly say that loving God means promoting his good, since he is regarded as already perfect in every respect. Only if one identifies loving God with loving his creatures, and loving them with promoting for them the greatest balance of good over evil (and both of these steps may be questioned), can one construe Judeo-Christian agapism as utilitarianism. Some Christian moralists have done precisely this, for example, the theological utilitarians who followed John Locke in the eighteenth century. In any case, if agapism is thus equated with utilitarianism, it will be subject to the criticisms previously made. Again, however, many theologians, especially today, would reject as inadequate this social gospel version of Judeo-Christian ethics.

Is their view a deontological one of some kind? Some Christian moralists have, in fact, been deontologists, for example, Butler and Samuel Clarke. But then they have also usually held, in Butler's words, "that benevolence, and the want of it, singly considered, are in no sort the whole of virtue and vice" -- that, besides benevolence, there are other valid moral principles like justice and veracity. In short, they have not been pure agapists. The same is true of the Catholics who adopt the Thomist doctrine of natural moral laws that are not derived from the law of love. Sometimes theologians have maintained that we ought to love God and our neighbor because God commands us to and we ought to obey God; or, following I John 4:11, that we ought to love one another because God loves us and we ought to imitate God. Then they are agapists, but only derivatively; basically they are non-agapistic deontologists, since they rest their ethics on some principle like ''We ought to obey God" or "We ought to imitate God" which is taken to be more fundamental than the law of love and hence not derived from it.

It may be that we must regard pure agapism as a third kind of normative theory in addition to deontological and teleological ones. If it is not, then presumably it is covered by what has already been said. But if it is a third sort of view, it may still take two forms: act-agapism and rule-agapism. The pure act-agapist will hold that we are not to appeal to rules; we are to tell what we should do in a particular situation simply by getting clear about the facts of that situation and then asking what is the loving or the most loving thing to do in it. In other words, we are to apply the law of love directly and separately in each case with which we are confronted. This view has been called antinomianism or situationalism, and is characteristic of some religious existentialists. It is obviously open to the same objections that we made to act-deontological theories. A modified act-agapist will give a place to rules based on past experience, but only as useful rules of thumb. Fletcher's situation ethics is a modified act-agapism, but he gives it a clearly act-utilitarian and teleological twist. The rule-agapist will contend, on the other hand, that we are to determine what we ought to do, not by asking which act is the most loving, but by determining which rules of action are most love-embodying, and then following these rules in particular situations, at least whenever this is possible. For all forms of agapism, if they form a third type of theory, the basic injunction is to have a certain disposition or attitude (love) toward God and fellowman and to express it in one's judgments, actions, or rules of action.

On either view, it is not clear how the injunction to love provides us with any directive, any way of telling which rule to perform or which rule to follow, unless we are to resort to the principles of bgneficencc or utility or to some kind of revelation (e.g., the Bible and the life of Jesus). In any case, it is hard to see how we can derive all of our duties from the instruction to love simply by itself. For example, the duty to be just seems to be as difficult to derive from the law of love as it is from the principles of beneficence or utility. The law of love also by itself gives us no way of choosing between different ways of distributing good and evil. This is recognized by the Thomist doctrine of natural law, and seems sometimes to be admitted by Reinhold Niebuhr even when he criticizes this Thomist doctrine. Emil Brunner even goes so far as to contrast love and justice instead of eliciting the one from the other. In reply, one might argue, as Garnett does, that justice is built into the law of love, since, in its second clause, it requires us to love our neighbors as ourselves or equally with ourselves. However, if we so construe the law of love, it is really a twofold principle, telling us to be benevolent to all and to be so equally in all cases. Then, the ethics of love is not purely agapistic and is identical with the view I have been proposing.

The clearest and most plausible view, in my opinion, is to identify the law of love with what I have called the principle of beneficence, that is, of doing good, and to insist that it must be supplemented by the principle of distributive justice or equality. It is, then, one of the basic principles of ethics but not the only one. If one does this, one must, of course, conceive of the principle of beneficence as asking us not only to do what is in fact beneficent but also to be benevolent, i.e., to do it out of love.

Even in saying this I am equating the law of love with its second clause. The first clause, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God," cannot be put under my principle of beneficence. However, it raises the question of the existence of God, since we can hardly have an obligation to love God if he does not exist; and we must leave this question to the philosophy of religion. In any case, the problem of the relation between the two clauses is not an easy one. It may even be that we should regard the first as asserting, not a moral obligation as the second does, but a religious one.

Another point about the ethics of love requires mention. Its Judeo-Christian proponents generally claim that it first appeared in the world as a special revelation, that it depends in an essential way on the presence of certain theistic beliefs and experiences, and that it is available as a working principle only to those who have been reborn through the grace of God. Such claims raise interesting and important questions for moral philosophy, but we cannot discuss these here, though I shall say a little about the relation of ethics to theology in Chapter 6. Those who make such claims also seem to admit that some other moral principles are both necessary and available, independently of the law of love, for those to whom no special revelation has been made and who have not been reborn. As St. Paul says in Romans 2:14-15, the Gentiles who do not know the law of love still have a moral law "written in their hearts." This seems to mean that agapism cannot be the whole story. Of course, one may admit that the law of love is not the only available form of morality and yet insist that it is by itself an adequate morality, in fact, the only adequate or the highest form of morality. This, however, is true, as I have tried to show, only if pure agapism is supplemented by a principle of justice. I am even inclined to think that the life of pure love, unsupplemented in this way, is not the moral life; it is not immoral, but it may be beyond morality, as some theologians say it is.


Here we ought to sketch a theory of moral rights as well as of duties, but we must content ourselves with saying that the same theory that tells us our duties will also tell us our rights. In general, rights and duties are correlative. Wherever X has a right against Y, Y has a duty to X. The reverse is not always true, as we have seen. Y ought to be benevolent to X, but X can hardly demand this as his right. In the case of most kinds of duties and obligations, however, if Y has a duty to X, X has a right to be treated in a certain way by Y. Hence, for the most part, the theory of rights is simply the reverse side of the theory of duties and obligations, and rests on the same general principles. Fuller discussion of rights must be left to social and political philosophy.

One more topic requires brief treatment here. We have been seeking the general principles for determining what is right and what is wrong. It is often said, however, that one should do what he thinks is right. We are all familiar with the following kind of situation. Smith and Jones are discussing what is right for Smith to do in a certain case. Smith thinks he ought to do X, but Jones thinks Smith ought to do Y; both present their reasons but neither convinces the other. Smith, however, is troubled and asks Jones what he should do. At this point Jones may say, "I still think you should do Y." But he may also say, "You should do what you think is right" or "Do what your conscience tells you." This suggests that we might have cut short our long exploration, saying simply "Always do what you think is right" or "Let your conscience be your guide."

Such a short way through our problem is, however, not open to us. For what one thinks is right may be wrong, and so may what one's conscience tells him. There is something that is really right for Smith to do and he and Jones are trying to determine what it is. Smith cannot determine this by trying to see what he thinks is right. When he thinks X is right he is thinking X is really right; but he may be mistaken in this, as he himself recognizes by talking with Jones. What is troubling is the fact that Jones says both that Smith should do Y and also that Smith should do what he thinks is right (which is X). We need a distinction here. Jones holds that Y is the objectively right thing for Smith to do. but he allows that, since Smith sincerely believes he should do X even after careful reflection, it is subjectively right for him to do X. Or, better, he believes that if Smith does X he is doing what is wrong, but is not morally bad or blameworthy -- in fact, he would be blameworthy if he failed to do X, believing that he ought to do it.

It needs to be added that we do not and can not always regard an agent as free from blame when he does what he thinks is right. We do not and cannot simply excuse the Nazis for their crimes against humanity even if we think they sincerely believed that what they were doing was right, partly because the wrong is too heinous and partly because a man may be responsible for his moral errors.

It remains true, nevertheless, that a man must in the moment of decision do what he thinks is right. He cannot do otherwise. This does not mean that what he does will be right or even that he will not be worthy of blame or punishment. He simply has no choice, for he cannot at that moment see any discrepancy between what is right and what he thinks is right. He cannot be morally good if he does not do what he finally believes to be right, but even then, what he does may not be what he ought to do. The life of man, even if he would be moral, is not without its risks.

Some relativists insist, of course, that there is no such thing as something it is objectively right to do, that there is no distinction between what is (really) right and what one thinks is right. In actual moral living, however, a man must make such a distinction. Else he cannot even have a question to ask about what he should do.


1 Ethics (New York: The Free Press, 1965), p. 41.

2 Generalization in Ethics (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961).

3 Essays in Pragmatism, A. Castell, ed. (New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1948).