Consequentialist theories, nonconsequentialist theories, and virtue ethics will all be briefly described
below and applied to explain some of our considered moral beliefs.
1. Consequantialist theories: For the consequentialist, the key to determining whether an action or rule is
ethically appropriate is a determination of the consequences of performing the action or following the
rule. Here you should distinguish between egoism, where the scope is very narrow—viz. the individual—
and utilitarianism, where the scope is broad—namely, all those affected by performing the action or
following a rule. Once this is done, there are at least two different important issues that you can raise for
the students to discuss:
a. In considering the consequences, we are considering the effects that performing an action or
following a rule can have. But the effects on whom or on what? On humans On all sentient creatures? On
b. What sorts of consequences should we be interested in? For instance, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy
Bentham focused on pleasure and pain, which they equated with happiness and suffering. But is this what
we want to focus on? If so, is there only one kind of pleasure?
(When discussing utilitarianism, bear in mind that the Shaw and Barry defer discussion of rule
utilitarianism until later in the chapter and that they also discuss utilitarianism in chapter 3 in the context
of justice and economic distribution.)
How can a consequentialist theory apply to our considered moral beliefs? Consider Mill's act
utilitarianism that states that all actions are right if they maximize happiness and wrong if they don't. In
a. charity is good whenever it actually helps people avoid suffering or attain happiness (such as when
we give food to hungry people who can't afford food). Charity isn't good when it fails to actually help
anyone (or if we have reason to expect that it won't). Sometimes the media can reveal corruption found in
a charity and we have a good reason to give to the charities that we think will do the most good.
b. stealing is wrong whenever it causes more suffering than the happiness it provides. Stealing is not
only likely to make people suffer emotionally when they find out someone stole from them, but stealing
often takes away a person's ability to care for themselves. For example, if you take food away from
someone, they might not be able to care for themselves as well. Nonetheless, stealing isn't necessarily
wrong in every situation. Stealing from the wealthy might be necessary to live a decent life when we have
no reasonable means of attaining money. (Consider Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the
c. killing people is wrong whenever it causes more suffering than the happiness it brings. Killing
people can not only cause pain to the person that dies, but it can cause people grief. The loved ones of the
person who dies are especially relevant. Nonetheless, killing people might be necessary for the “greater
good” in some situatios. For example, it might be justified when defending a country in war time or when
necessary to protect innocent people with law enforcement.
2. Nonconsequentialist theories: Turning to nonconsequentialist theories, you will want to discuss
Immanuel Kant, W.D. Ross, and a rights-based ethical approach. In the case of Kant, you can focus on the
notions of duty and intention, and how they figure into determinations of what is morally permissible.
This will lead to a discussion of Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative. You can then move on to
Ross and contrast Kant with Ross. Whereas for Kant duties can never conflict, for Ross they are prima
facie and we often have to choose between them. Here, you can ask how you are supposed to decide
between competing, prima facie duties. Finally, you can discuss the notion of human rights. Many people
talk about human rights (e.g., the right to life, the right to liberty), but there are lots of questions about
such rights. You can, for instance, ask how we decide which rights are human rights (and in so doing,
contrast them with legal rights), whether such rights are exceptionless, and what exactly it means to call
them “human” rights (what about animals, for instance -- a topic that will come up again in chapter 11 of
Shaw and Barry).