Summary Ethics Class notes

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Summary - Ethics Class notes

  • 1392678000 Lecture 3. Reasoning and Collective reasoning

  • What is an ethical problem?
    A difference of opinion between those involved with respect to the rightness/wrongness of behaviour (or the laws, rules, customs, habits, etc. that underpin that behaviour)
  • Methods for dealing with ethical problems. 
    1. Voting
    2. Negotiation
    3. Use of violence/power or threatening to use violence/power
    4. Resolving differences of opinion through communication, reasoning, and discussion
  • If people agree on a collection of starting assumptions (also called premises) then they should in principle be able to reach agreement on anything that through reasoning can be derived from the starting assumptions (also called conclusion).

  • Normative statements (expressing value judgements) cannot be based on observations (alone). 

    This is what the naturalistic fallacy tells us
  • Neither are there any other external sources of normative statements that cannot be denied or questioned.

    This is at least what many people including many philosophers believe, and what will be assumed in this course.
  • Implication: a normative conclusion always requires (at least) one normative premise.
  • 1392764400 Lecture 4. Reasoning and collective reasoning. Examples and limitations

  • A risk assessment is defined here as an estimate of the magnitude of a risk, in terms of the possible physical effects and of the probabilities of those effects materialising.

    With risk evaluation we mean a judgement of whether the risk is acceptable.


  • A statement is called here subjective if that statement can be denied without denying any empirical facts or violating (deductive) logic. 
  • Similarly, we will call a statement objective if the statement cannot be denied without denying empirical facts or violating deductive logic.
  • There are at least two reasons why consistent agreement on the SCBA could fail to be reached, even assuming that all involved respect the rules of collective reasoning:

    1.People differ in wealth and/or income. Hence 10.000 euro’s has not the same value for all and hence they may not want to run the same risk to gain 10.000 euro’s.

    2.Even if people did not differ in wealth or income, they may and usually will differ in how risk averse or risk prone they are.
  • 1.Even when both the risk (probability + nature of possible negative effects) and the benefit from a risk generating (technological) activity were known, then people might fail to reach consistent agreement about the acceptability of the risk (and hence the activity), even when they are willing to and capable of respecting the rules for collective reasoning.

    2.In reality, both the risks and the benefits are usually not (completely or objectively) known.

    In addition, the risks and the benefits are usually unevenly spread.

    All this further worsens the prospects for consistent agreement.
  • 1393282800 Lecture 5 Ethical principles

  • Some requirements for acceptable ethical principles
    If an ethical principle is to be acceptable to all, such a principle should presumably respect the following assumptions:

    Subjectivity: all norms and values are ultimately subjective

    [A statement or principle is subjective if it can be denied without denying empirical facts or violating (deductive) logic].

    Autonomy: human beings (1) are capable of and (2) have the right to taking autonomous decisions

    Equal rights: no one has more rights than (the rights he/she grants to) others
  • What is restricted liberty
    (also called the right to self determination)

    Everyone is free to do what he/she pleases as long as he/she does not harm others.

    An equivalent is the right to be safeguarded, sometimes also called the no harm principle:

      Everyone has the right to be safeguarded from the (negative) consequences of another person's actions.


      For all activities that may have consequences for others, the informed consent of those others is required. 

  • What is reciprocity?

    He/she who violates a right of another one may be reacted to in a reciprocal way. That means that somebody who infringes a certain right of another will him/herself lose that same right insofar as that is necessary (and no more than that) in order to correct the original violation or to compensate for it and in order to, if necessary, prevent further infringement. 

  • Reciprocity and restricted liberty together have the following implication for liability: 

    Any damage from activities for which there was no informed consent should be repaired or (if repair is impossible) be fully compensated by the actor.

  • Four implications of restricted liberty and reciprocity
    1. “Informed consent.
    The standard of human action towards others should be informed consent
    2. The concept of a culture.
    A group culture should be defined as the set of the norms/values
    3. Collective decision making.
    Political decisions should be taken with consensus rule rather than with majority rule.
    4. Legal liability.
    As it cannot be assumed that there is agreement among all involved about (activities allowed by) current laws, the standard for legal liability should be unconditional and unlimited liability. 
  • What is Classical Utilitarianism 
    An activity is allowed (according to some interpretations: mandatory) if that activity increases (according to some interpretations: maximises) the sum of individual well beings (utilities).
  • The concept of utility
    A utility function is then a function describing how someone’s well being depends on the circumstances he/she is in.
    Utility is (a measure for) the satisfaction received from consuming a good or service.
  • Objections stated against Classical Utilitarianism
    The well being (utility) of different individuals cannot be compared. Hence utilitarianism is inapplicable.
    Even assuming that the well beings of individuals can be compared, then it would be unjust to make some suffer for the greater benefit of others (which is what may be required for increasing or maximising total utility). 
  • Pareto improvement

    A change is a Pareto improvement if and only if the change makes at least one person better off (in his/her own judgement) and no one worse off (in their own judgement).

  • Pareto utilitarianism

    An activity is allowed if and only if the activity leads to a Pareto improvement.

    Implication: an activity is allowed if and only if:
    Either there are no (possible) consequences for others;
    Or all who may be affected by the consequences have given their informed consent to the activity.
  • Pareto utilitarianism with reciprocity
    Actors should be liable for harm from activities that did not have the consent of those subjected to the harm.
  • Kants categorical imperative
    Act only according to that maxim (=rule) whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law
  • Social contract theories
    According to social contract theorists, the (only) justification for ethical principles is that they are (or could be) accepted by everyone as the conditions under which they are willing to live together in a society.
  • Kant and the presumed irrelevance of consequences  
    Kant: Whether an act is ethical or not depends (solely?) on whether the act was or was not motivated by good will". 
    Mills reaction: In order to respect the categorical imperative an actor always needs to consider the (possible) consequences of his/her activities for others. For whether or not it can be willed that a given maxim become a universal law, depends upon whether the consequences of that law are considered good/positive or not.

  • Social Cost Benefit Analysis (SCBA)
    A collective project can/must be executed if: B - D - CE = SB > 0 
    A (Social) CBA should include risks, as risks are expected costs.The theory of decision making under uncertainty makes it clear that any risk must be considered as equivalent to a cost for certain. 
  • What is a virtual Pareto
    improvement/Kaldor-Hicks improvement?

    A change is a virtual Pareto improvement if the gain from the change of those who are in favor is sufficient to compensate the harm caused by the change to those who object to the change, but where the compensation does not actually take place.

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Example questions in this summary

•What is an ethical problem?
Methods for dealing with ethical problems. 
Some requirements for acceptable ethical principles
Reciprocity and restricted liberty together have the following implication for liability: 
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