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The Common Structure of Kantianism and Act-Utilitarianism


This article proposes a way of understanding Kantianism, act-utilitarianism and some other important ethical theories according to which they are all versions of the same kind of theory, sharing a common structure. I argue that this is a profitable way to understand the theories discussed. It is charitable to the theories concerned; it emphasizes the common ground between them; it gives us insights into the differences between them; and it provides a method for generating new ethical theories worth studying. The article briefly discusses the relationship between these ideas and some other recent proposals that emphasize the common ground between Kantianism and versions of consequentialism.

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1 Sidgwick, H., The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn. (London, 1907), p. xxi; Cummiskey, D., Kantian Consequentialism (Oxford, 1996), p. 4; Hare, R. M., Sorting Out Ethics (Oxford, 2000), pp. 153–4; Kagan, S., ‘Kantianism for Consequentialists’, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Wood, A. (New Haven, CT, 2002), pp. 111–56, at 150; , D., On What Matters, ed. Scheffler, S., 2 vols. (Oxford, 2011), vol. 1, pt. 3.

2 Dean, R., The Value of Humanity in Kant's Moral Theory (Oxford, 2006), pp. 165–74; Morgan, S., ‘Can There Be a Kantian Consequentialism?’, Ratio 22 (2009), pp. 1940; Otsuka, M., ‘The Kantian Argument for Consequentialism’, Ratio 22 (2009), pp. 4158; Ross, J., ‘Should Kantians be Consequentialists?’, Ratio 22 (2009), pp. 126–35.

3 Portmore, D. W., ‘Consequentializing Moral Theories’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 88 (2007), pp. 3973.

4 Ridge, M., ‘Consequentialist Kantianism’, Philosophical Perspectives 23 (2009), pp. 421–38.

5 This depends on how finely KE patterns are individuated. If anything that could provide a reason is also sufficient to distinguish one KE pattern from another, there will be no reasons for action that are not associated with KE patterns, according to Kantianism.

6 Compare Nozick on the idea of symbolic value. Nozick, R., The Nature of Rationality (Princeton, 1993), pp. 2635, 41–50.

7 For a defence of the idea, see Woodard, C., Reasons, Patterns, and Cooperation (New York, 2008).

8 Woodard, C., ‘A New Argument against Rule Consequentialism’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 11 (2008), pp. 247–61.

9 Korsgaard, C. M., Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge, 1996), p. 150. Note that Korsgaard explains Kant's idea in terms of ‘[doing] my part’. I am grateful to Guy Fletcher for pointing out the relevance of this passage.

10 See Herman, B., The Practice of Moral Judgment (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), ch. 10.

11 See Regan, D., Utilitarianism and Co-operation (Oxford, 1980), p. 124.

12 See Bergström, L., The Alternatives and Consequences of Actions (Stockholm, 1966); Zimmerman, M. J., The Concept of Moral Obligation (Cambridge, 1996); D. Portmore, ‘What Are Our Options?’, unpublished paper, <> (2012).

13 I am assuming that what an agent ought to do is some function of her reasons. ‘Interaction’ is the function that takes us from reasons to oughts.

14 We can set aside the issue of whether this should be understood as maximizing expected, or instead actual, utility.

15 For example, Smart, J. J. C., ‘An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics’, in Smart, J. J. C. and Williams, B., Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 374.

16 Kant writes: ‘a kingdom of ends would actually come into existence through maxims whose rule the categorical imperative prescribes to all rational beings if they were universally followed’ (Groundwork 4: 438, in Gregor, M. J. (trans. and ed.), Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy (Cambridge, 1996), p. 87, emphasis in the original).

17 B. Williams, ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism’, Utilitarianism: For and Against, pp. 75–150, esp. 98–116. This may be why Williams's examples all involve problems caused by other agents.

18 Theories that include a willingness requirement are a complicated partial exception.

19 Zimmerman, Moral Obligation, ch. 6; Jackson, F., ‘Group Morality’, Metaphysics and Morality: Essays in Honour of J. J. C. Smart, ed. Pettit, P., Sylvan, R. and Norman, J. (Oxford, 1987), pp. 91110.

20 Regan, Utilitarianism, p. 124; McClennen, E. F., Rationality and Dynamic Choice (Cambridge, 1990).

21 For example, see Hooker, B., Ideal Code, Real World (Oxford, 2000), pp. 98–9.

22 Woodard, ‘Rule Consequentialism’, pp. 257–8.

23 I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this point.

24 Portmore, ‘Consequentializing’, pp. 39–40.

25 Ridge makes a similar point. See Ridge, ‘Consequentialist Kantianism’, pp. 425–6.

26 Portmore, ‘Consequentializing’, pp. 41–3.

27 Ridge, ‘Consequentialist Kantianism’. By ‘teleological’, Ridge means a conception of value according to which it is to be promoted (p. 424). Note that this is more restrictive than my usage of ‘teleological’ in sect. II, above.

28 Ridge, ‘Consequentialist Kantianism’, p. 435.

29 Note that Ridge appears to be restricting ‘consequentialism’ to theories with agent-neutral theories of value. In contrast, the consequentializing idea relies on the supposition that consequentialism is compatible with agent-relative theories of value.

30 For helpful comments and discussion I am very grateful to Andrew Fisher, Guy Fletcher, Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, Daniel Nolan, Douglas Portmore, Neil Sinclair, members of the audience at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, University of Colorado, Boulder, on 7 August 2009 (especially Julia Driver, Shelly Kagan and Arthur Ward), members of the audience at the University of Manchester research seminar on 12 October 2011, and anonymous referees for this journal.

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  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
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