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Obligation, Human Frailty, and Utilitarianism1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 January 2009


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I am especially grateful to James Griffin for providing the inspiration for this paper, extensive comments on it and for giving me access to unpublished material that has helped me understand his position. I am also grateful to Alan Hamlin and Peter Johnson and to two referees for comments which have helped me a great deal in improving it. Any faults are, of course, mine.


2 See Griffin, James P., ‘The Distinction Between Criterion and Decision Procedure: A Reply to Madison Powers”, Utilitas, vi (1994), 177–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar, ‘On the Winding Road From Good to Right”, Value, Welfare and Morality, ed. Frey, R. G. and Morris, C. W., Cambridge, 1993, pp. 158–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar, ‘The Human Good and the Ambitions of Consequentialism”, The Good Life and the Human Good, ed. Paul, E. F., Miller, F. D. and Paul, J., Cambridge, 1992, pp. 118–32Google Scholar and ‘Mixing Values”, Aristotelian Society, lxv (1991), 100–18.Google Scholar

3 ‘The Human Good and the Ambitions of Consequentialism”, p. 131.Google Scholar

4 Ibid., p. 122.

5 ‘On the Winding Road From Good to Right”, p. 162.Google Scholar

6 See Lemmon, E. J., ‘Moral Dilemmas”, The Philosophical Review, lxxi (1969), 139–58Google Scholar; Williams, B. A. O., ‘Ethical Consistency”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, xxxix (1965)Google Scholar, Supplementary Volume, 103–24 and reprinted in Williams, B. A. O., Problems of the Self, Cambridge, 1973, pp. 166–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Van Fraasen, Bas V., ‘Values and the Heart's Command”, Journal of Philosophy, lxx (1973), 519CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Marcus, Ruth M., ‘Moral Dilemmas and Consistency”, Journal of Philosophy, lxxvii (1980), 121–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Conee, Earl, ‘Against Moral Dilemmas”, The Philosophical Review, xci (1982), 8797CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Levi, Isaac, Hard Choices. Decision Making Under Unresolved Conflict, Cambridge, 1986CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Moral Dilemmas, ed. Gowans, C. W., Oxford, 1987Google Scholar; Hurley, Susan L., Natural Reasons. Personality and Polity, Oxford, 1989Google Scholar; Waldron, Jeremy, ‘Rights in Conflict”, Ethics, xcix (1989), 503–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Herman, Barbara, ‘Obligation and Performance. A Kantian Account of Moral Conflict”, Identity, Character and Morality, ed. Flanagan, O. and Rorty, A. O., Cambridge, 1990, pp. 311–37Google Scholar; and Pietrowski, Paul M., ‘Prima Facie Obligations, Ceteris Paribus Laws in Moral Theory”, Ethics, ciii (1993), 489515.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7 See Nagel's discussion in Nagel, Thomas, Mortal Questions, Cambridge, 1979, p. 74Google Scholar, Lemmon, , 150Google Scholar, Marcus, , 134Google Scholar, Hurley, , pp. 125–9Google Scholar, Waldron, , 506–7Google Scholar, Herman, , p. 315.Google Scholar

8 Ross, W. D., The Right and the Good, Oxford, 1930.Google Scholar

9 I am thinking of weakness of the will in the sense that Donald Davidson uses, where the agent voluntarily acts against his judgement about the best course of action. See Davidson, Donald, Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford, 1980, p. 22.Google Scholar

10 James Griffin pointed out to me that there are more serious cases of addiction where we might feel that we need to help an addict get what he wants, indeed that he ought to get it. This, while valid, does not affect my point.

11 Williams has made this point in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Cambridge, 1985, p. 221Google Scholar. This sort of example is discussed by many, including Herman and Pietrowski.

12 This point can, in fact, be traced to Aristotle's discussion of virtue and blame in Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics, at 1114A 23–31. See The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Barnes, Jonathan, Princeton, 1984, p. 1759.Google Scholar

13 See note 6.

14 See note 6.

15 See Marcus, , 134–5Google Scholar. While Marcus's motivation is similar to mine, I wonder whether her point applies to cases where the agent thinks she ought to ø and ought to not ø. Marcus's general idea that the agent ought to act in such a way as to avoid conflict was famously anticipated by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, in the context of akrasia, where he claims roughly, that the wise man acts in such a way that there is no potential for conflict between right principle and desire. Rorty, A. O. makes this point in Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, ed. Rorty, A. O., California, 1980, p. 274.Google Scholar

16 See Waldron, , 509–12.Google Scholar

17 It is true, however, that as in Waldron's discussion whether derivative obligations are seen as part of the primary obligation or distinct obligations in their own right is not important. Waldron, , 511Google Scholar, has made this point with regard to the ‘waves of duty” generated by some duty.

18 ‘The Human Good and the Ambitions of Consequentialism”, p. 122.Google Scholar

19 Ibid., p. 123.

20 ‘The Distinction Between Criterion and Decision Procedure” 181.Google Scholar

21 Thus, normative theories, such as utilitarianism, are fully compatible with a life of virtue, in a sense. The point has been forcefully made by Crisp, Roger in ‘Utilitarianism and the Life of Virtue”, The Philosophical Quarterly, xlii (1992), 139–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 This formulation is, incidentally, very close to one derived by Brandt, Richard in his ‘A Utilitarian Theory of Excuses”Google Scholar in an altogether different manner and context with regard to utilitarianism where ‘the agent is excused of an act if it does not manifest some defect of character”. See Brandt, Richard B., Morality, Utilitarianism and Rights, Cambridge, 1992, p. 229.Google Scholar

23 Griffin has been much concerned with how much impartiality can be expected of us. See particularly his ‘On the Winding Road from Good to Right” and ‘The Distinction between Criterion and Decision Procedure”. I suspect that difficulties with answering this question – that is with specifying precisely how impartial one ought to be – may cause the same sorts of problem that I have been discussing. Indeed, this may be what Griffin thinks. He writes (‘The Distinction Between Criterion and Decision Procedure”, 179Google Scholar) that ‘it is not clear how much impartiality can be demanded of us”. See also Crisp, , 156.Google Scholar

24 See previous note.