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Punishment and Political Philosophy  

Jesper Ryberg

The punishment of criminal offenders constitutes a topic that has for many years received comprehensive attention, both in narrower academic circles and in broader public debate. This is not surprising. State-mandated infliction of death, suffering, or deprivation of freedom on citizens should from the outset be met with hesitation, and constitutes a practice which clearly calls for more profound considerations. Though the theoretical discussion of punishment has dealt with many conceptual and ethical issues, from an overall point of view, it is dominated by two questions. The first question, as indicated, concerns the justification of legal punishment. Why and under what conditions is it justified for the state to impose punishment on perpetrators? The traditional answers have been split between the utilitarian approach, according to which punishment can be justified in terms of its future desirable consequences, mainly crime prevention, and the retrospectively oriented retributivist approach, which justifies punishment in terms of just deserts. In the modern discussion, the picture has become more diverse. Consequentialist and retributivist justifications have been developed in many different versions and several attempts have been made to combine forward- and backward-looking considerations into coherent schemes. Moreover, genuinely new accounts of penal theories have also been presented. The second question concerns the issue of how different crimes should be punitively responded to. Though this question is obviously theoretically closely related to the first, it is also clear that the question of how individual offenders should be punished for their respective misdeeds prompts a plethora of more detailed challenges such as: What should determine the gravity of a crime? How should one determine the severity of a punishment? Are there types of punishment that should never be used in the criminal justice system (e.g., capital or corporal punishment)? Much of the contemporary discussion within penal theory is devoted to the task of providing principled solutions to these detailed challenges.



Martin Marchman Andersen

Consequentialism is a theory of moral rightness, where the domain of morality is to be understood in the broadest sense, covering politics and normative economics as well as more personal morality. It holds that an action is right if and only if no other available action leads to a better outcome seen from an agent-neutral perspective. Thus, according to consequentialism we must maximize the good seen from an agent-neutral perspective. Consequentialism is demanding not only because our actions are right only if they lead to the best outcome—second or third best are never good enough—but also because the evaluation of what the best outcome is should be given from an agent-neutral perspective: The reasons we give, for acting in one way or another, should be reasons for anyone. Consequentialism is a basic moral theory in the sense that we need to specify its values for it to be operational, for it to tell us how to act, what to do. Our considerations over the values of consequentialism must result in answers to several questions, most importantly as to what it is we should maximize. This includes the specification of not only the consequentialist currency, for example, welfare, but also how that currency ought to be distributed, for example, by maximization, and between whom it ought to be distributed, for example, conscious human beings. The most famous version of consequentialism is utilitarianism, holding that actions are right if and only if they maximize the sum of welfare.


Philosophies of Punishment  

Jerry Cederblom

Numerous philosophical theories purport to justify a system of legal punishment. It is doubtful, however, that any of them successfully answer these three questions: Why punish? Whom to punish? How much to punish? Straightforward retributive theories, which justify punishment by looking back at the wrongful harm done by an offender, don’t adequately answer the question of why the offender should be harmed in return for harm done. More sophisticated retributive theories construe punishment as equalizing an unfair advantage taken by an offender. Such theories have difficulty with the question of how much to punish. Consent theories view offenders as willing punishment onto themselves by their voluntary acts. The various versions of this theory all fail to answer one or more of the three questions: why, whom, and how much. Rights forfeiture theories give a question-begging answer to the “why” question and don’t answer the question of how much. Consequentialist theories, which justify punishment by looking forward to results such as deterrence and incapacitation, have difficulties with whom to punish and how much. Arguably, punishing an innocent person who is believed to be guilty could deter potential offenders, and a serious offense might be deterred by a less severe punishment than a minor offense. Some philosophers see insurmountable problems for strictly backward-looking theories that appeal to guilt of the offender and for strictly forward-looking theories that appeal to future consequences. The solution, then, could be a theory that appeals to future results to provide a reason for punishing, but looks back at harm done by the offender to answer the question of whom to punish and how much. However, without a unifying rationale for taking these different approaches to these particular issues, such a mixed theory would be ad hoc if not incoherent. In recent decades, philosophers have offered several approaches that might avoid the pitfalls described above by providing a unified rationale for punishment that is both backward and forward looking. Self-defense theories hold that it is rational and justifiable for the state to threaten punishment in order to defend citizens against offenses. They then move by various strategies from the justifiability of the threat to the justifiability of punishment. Forced choice theories justify punishment as a way of distributing necessary harm to the guilty rather than the innocent. Censure theories attempt to justify punishment as the state’s means of expressing disapproval of offenses against the law. Each of these theories faces difficulties, but proponents might judge that even though they haven’t yet been able to adequately state the justification of punishment, their theory is on the right track. Others view the difficulties faced by all theories and boldly conclude that punishment is not justifiable. There is little support for rehabilitation as an alternative to punishment. The practices associated with restorative justice, although not directly aimed at punishment, typically involve punishment, so they still require a justification for punishment. Whether a system of restitution could take the place of a system of punishment is problematic. The situation is made even more troublesome by the fact that the theories that have been surveyed aim to justify punishment in a society with a just political structure and laws. Even if such a theory succeeds, it is far from clear that it would justify punishment in a society where many of those who are harmed by punishment have also been victims of injustice.


Utilitarianism and International Ethics  

Gerard Elfstrom

Utilitarianism is inextricably linked to international ethics. The roots of the principle of utility can be traced to the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was employed by thinkers such as David Hume. However, Jeremy Bentham first formulated utilitarianism in detail and carefully studied its implications. According to Bentham, happiness is a condition in which an individual enjoys more pleasure than pain. Because utilitarianism is focused on the welfare of the individual, state boundaries are of little consequence. Its reach is inherently global. There are different varieties of utilitarianism. What sets them apart from other ethical theories is their stipulation that whatever is of value should be maximized for all and whatever of disvalue should be minimized for all. For Bentham, pleasure is the ultimate value. Later, John Stuart Mill distinguished between higher and lower pleasures and argued that higher pleasures should be given greater weight. In the 20th century, authors such as R. M. Hare determined that maximal satisfaction of preferences is the value to be sought. The utilitarian emphasis on maximization of value and its choice of values have generated much criticism from those who espoused human rights theories, such as John Rawls and those influenced by his work. At present, the scholarly literature dealing with issues related to international ethics mostly comes from those who are committed to human rights theory or who are committed to equality of outcomes for human beings.


Digital Media Ethics  

Charles Ess

Since the early 2000s, Digital Media Ethics (DME) has emerged as a relatively stable subdomain of applied ethics. DME seeks nothing less than to address the ethical issues evoked by computing technologies and digital media more broadly, such as cameras, mobile and smartphones, GPS navigation systems, biometric health monitoring devices, and, eventually, “the Internet of things,” as these have developed and diffused into more or less every corner of our lives in the (so-called) developed countries. DME can be characterized as demotic—of the people—in three important ways. One, in contrast with specialist domains such as Information and Computing Ethics (ICE), it is intended as an ethics for the rest of us—namely, all of us who use digital media technologies in our everyday lives. Two, these manifold contexts of use dramatically expand the range of ethical issues computing technologies evoke, well beyond the comparatively narrow circle of issues confronting professionals working in ICE. Three, while drawing on the expertise of philosophers and applied ethics, DME likewise relies on the ethical insights and sensibilities of additional communities, including (a), the multiple communities of those whose technical expertise comes into play in the design, development, and deployment of information and communication technology (ICT); and (b), the people and communities who use digital media in their everyday lives. DME further employs both ancient ethical philosophies, such as virtue ethics, and modern frameworks of utilitarianism and deontology, as well as feminist ethics and ethics of care: DME may also take, for example, Confucian and Buddhist approaches, as well as norms and customs from relevant indigenous traditions where appropriate. The global distribution and interconnection of these devices means, finally, that DME must also take on board often profound differences between basic ethical norms, practices, and related assumptions as these shift from culture to culture. What counts as “privacy” or “pornography,” to begin with, varies widely—as do the more fundamental assumptions regarding the nature of the person that we take up as a moral agent and patient, rights-holder, and so on. Of first importance here is how far we emphasize the more individual vis-à-vis the more relational dimensions of selfhood—with the further complication that these emphases appear to be changing locally and globally. Nonetheless, DME can now map out clear approaches to early concerns with privacy, copyright, and pornography that help establish a relatively stable and accepted set of ethical responses and practices. By comparison, violent content (e.g., in games) and violent behavior (cyber-bullying, hate speech) are less well resolved. Nonetheless, as with the somewhat more recent issues of online friendship and citizen journalism, an emerging body of literature and analysis points to initial guidelines and resolutions that may become relatively stable. Such resolutions must be pluralistic, allowing for diverse application and interpretations in different cultural settings, so as to preserve and foster cultural identity and difference. Of course, still more recent issues and challenges are in the earliest stages of analysis and efforts at forging resolutions. Primary issues include “death online” (including suicide web-sites and online memorial sites, evoking questions of censorship, the right to be forgotten, and so on); “Big Data” issues such as pre-emptive policing and “ethical hacking” as counter-responses; and autonomous vehicles and robots, ranging from Lethal Autonomous Weapons to carebots and sexbots. Clearly, not every ethical issue will be quickly or easily resolved. But the emergence of relatively stable and widespread resolutions to the early challenges of privacy, copyright, and pornography, coupled with developing analyses and emerging resolutions vis-à-vis more recent topics, can ground cautious optimism that, in the long run, DME will be able to take up the ethical challenges of digital media in ways reasonably accessible and applicable for the rest of us.