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Get Happy: A Defense of Act Utilitarianism

Get Happy: A Defense of Act Utilitarianism

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Published by Dylan Matthews
A Harvard College senior thesis on normative ethics.
A Harvard College senior thesis on normative ethics.

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Published by: Dylan Matthews on May 26, 2012
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02/16/2014

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Get Happy: A Defense of Act Utilitarianism
An Essay Presented byDylan Robert MatthewstoThe Committee on Degrees in Social Studiesin partial fulfillment of the requirementsfor a degree with honorsof Bachelor of ArtsHarvard CollegeMarch 2012
 
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CONTENTSINTRODUCTION
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1. FACTS AND REASONS
I. MONISM AND PLURALISM ABOUT REASONS 14II. COMMENSURABLE PLURALISM 16III. INCOMMENSURABILITY 19IV. WHAT SORT OF MONISM IS CORRECT? 30V. WHOSE FACTS GIVE REASONS? 43
2. MAKING DECISIONS
I. FOUR BRANDS OF CONSEQUENTIALISM 48II. MOTIVES AND DECISION PROCEDURES 53III. RULE AND INDIRECT ACT CONSEQUENTIALISM 62IV. INDIRECT ACT CONSEQUENTIALISM’S DEMANDINGNESS 65V. DIRTY HANDS 71VI. DECIDING ON A DECISION PROCEDURE 74
CONCLUSION: WHY A THEORY?
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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
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BIBLIOGRAPHY
83
 
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INTRODUCTION
People should have reasons for doing the things they do. This essay is about suchreasons. It is my aim to give an account of which facts–be they about the outside world,one’s personal desires, etc.–give one valid reasons to take one action or another, whichfacts do not, and how these truths about reasons should guide peoples’ practical decision-making. Such an account could be described as an “ethical theory.” However, it is aspecial type of ethical theory. There are three broad kinds of theories to which the term“ethical” might fairly be applied. The first variety, following Bernard Williams’distinction between “ethics” and “morality”
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, one might refer to as “moral theories.” Suchtheories detail what actions are prohibited or required by persons’ obligations to eachother. These theories admit that some things may be ethically required or permitted for reasons that are outside the given theory’s scope. For example, one may have reasons toavoid inflicting pain on animals, but a moral theory concerned only with persons’obligations to each other need not explain such reasons.
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 The second variety of ethical theory one might call “narrow ethical theories,”which detail which actions are ethically prohibited or required, regardless of whether these prohibitions or requirements arise due to our obligations to each other. Narrow
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See Williams 1985, 174-197. Williams draws a distinction between ethics, which isconcerned broadly with questions of how one should live, and morality, the subset of ethics particularly concerned with our obligations to each other. In this essay I willgenerally use the terms “moral” and “ethical” and “morality” and “ethics”interchangeably, for the sake of linguistic variety.
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See, for example, Scanlon 1999, 181. Scanlon’s contractualism seeks only to explain“our moral relations with other humans,” and while Scanlon argues that we have reasonto avoid inflicting pain on animals, these reasons are outside the theoretical scope of contractualism.

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