American Moral Philosophy
Abstract and Keywords
The philosophy of language and philosophy of science were dominant from the middle 1930s for the next twenty-five years. During this period, many leading philosophers felt reluctant to venture into normative ethics. It was often said that philosophers have no special expertise in, or insight into, matters of right and wrong. Philosophers could defend views about the nature of moral language and judgement. But if there are no literally true propositions that x is morally required or y is morally wrong, the only moral insight or expertise one could legitimately claim to have is that one has moral attitudes that are based on fuller empirical information or are more consistent.
The United States was founded by thinkers who mixed natural rights theory with the idea that society is and ought to be based on a social contract. Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence affirms the self‐evidence of certain natural rights—that is, rights that are justificatorily prior to any human authority or binding agreement. In secure possession of these rights, people would consent to a range of social and political practices and institutions, which would then be justified by that consent.
The pronouncements associated with the founding of the United States expressed the idea that ‘all men are created equal’. Admittedly, federal law did not come close to matching those pronouncements until slavery was abolished. Women had to wait even longer before they acquired the legal right to vote. And the de facto law in many southern states did not accord with the idea of equal moral status until nearly 200 years after the founding documents were written. The commitment to equal moral status may have taken a long time to pervade American culture, but it has been a shared presupposition of American moral philosophy.
The most important systematic philosophers in North America before the twentieth century were Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), William James (p. 579) (1842–1910), and John Dewey (1859–1950), though most of Dewey's career and influence fell in the twentieth century. Peirce focused on logic and epistemology, but his general pragmatism influenced James, who ventured into moral philosophy, though this was not one of his central concerns. Dewey was hugely prolific, and his œuvre contains three books focused on moral philosophy (Ethics, co‐authored with James Tufts, 1908, revised 1932; Human Nature and Conduct, 1922, and Theory of Valuation, 1939). His interest in human psychology, his hostility to dogmatism, and his commitment to instrumentalism and experimentation were deeply influential in American thought in general, and moral and social philosophy in particular. (Perhaps the two most celebrated works in American moral philosophy of this period that were influenced by Dewey were Ralph Barton Perry's General Theory of Value (1926) and C. I. Lewis's A Theory of Knowledge and Valuation (1949).)
Nevertheless, the giants of early twentieth‐century moral philosophy were British, not American. Whereas Dewey was a naturalist in moral metaphysics, an experimentalist in moral epistemology, and a contextualist about what questions need answering, G. E. Moore, H. A. Prichard, W. D. Ross, and C. D. Broad followed Henry Sidgwick in espousing non‐naturalism in moral metaphysics and foundationalist intuitionism in moral epistemology.
The non‐naturalism served to distinguish basic moral questions—for example, what constitutes goodness and rightness—from empirical and naturalistic questions. Of course most decisions about what to do are rightly sensitive to empirical information. However, whether the property of containing pleasure is the only one that can make a state of affairs good seems utterly different from any empirical or naturalistic question. Likewise, whether the property of producing pleasure is the only one that can make an act right seems utterly different from any empirical or naturalistic question. Since basic questions about the constitution of goodness and rightness are so different from empirical and naturalistic questions, and indeed so different from questions about supernatural commands or will, there came to be what is known as the ‘autonomy of ethics’.
But how can we know moral truth if not by studying divine commands or the natural order of the world? Moore took from his teacher Sidgwick the intuitionist idea that some propositions about value and duty are self‐evident, at least to someone with a refined sensibility who understands the propositions and contemplates them carefully. A proposition is self‐evident if it is intellectually compelling independently of what other propositions might (p. 580) be offered in its support.1 Foundationalist intuitionism promises to begin with enough self‐evident knowledge of evaluative truths for it to be the case that, when we combine this evaluative knowledge with empirical information, we can infer what actions to do, what habits to develop, what policies to support.
However, Sidgwick and many later self‐described intuitionists sometimes practised a form of reasoning that must be described as coherentist. They tried to make our intuitions about general principles cohere with our intuitive moral judgements about more specific matters. In this model, no general principle and no specific moral belief are taken as beyond question and possible revision or rejection. Each element is under pressure to fit with all the others. We shall later see the importance of this style of moral reasoning in the thought of John Rawls.
The more immediate reaction to early twentieth‐century British intuitionism came from those primarily in Britain who thought intuitionism too dogmatic and non‐naturalism too mysterious. But they agreed with the intuitionists that moral judgements did not purport merely to report empirical facts or ascribe natural properties to actions, states of affairs, characters, etc. In the 1930s, under the influence of the Vienna Circle, various British philosophers, including A. J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell, began developing the view that value judgements are not actually reports of facts at all, but rather expressions of emotion or attitudinal stance. Hence was born the doctrine that came to be known as emotivism.
The young American C. L. Stevenson went to study at Cambridge in the early 1930s, as did William Frankena and Richard Brandt. That these three philosophers, each of whom later became a leading figure in twentieth‐century American moral philosophy, went to Cambridge at that time testifies to Cambridge's philosophical supremacy while Moore, Broad, and especially Wittgenstein taught there. Wittgenstein was dominant. And Stevenson said he chose to focus on moral philosophy partly because Wittgenstein avoided this area. Anyway, between 1937 and 1944, Stevenson published work that persuaded much of the Anglophone philosophical community to embrace emotivism (Stevenson 1937, 1938, 1944).
Emotivism openly admits that moral dispute might not be rationally resolvable. Two people—for example, Lisa and Tim—might simply differ (p. 581) in their basic moral attitudes. Lisa might try to persuade Tim to revise his moral views on, say, abortion. She might do this by trying to get him to see more vividly the effects on women whose professional and personal lives are disrupted by nausea and tiredness during pregnancy and disrupted much more by the responsibilities of raising an unwanted child. Tim might try to get Lisa to appreciate more vividly just how recognizably human foetuses can be. But there is no philosophical guarantee that, if Lisa and Tim were to agree on all the empirical facts about foetuses, pregnancy, and parenthood, their attitudes to abortion would be the same.
If they really care about persuading one another, however, they might not give up trying to do so. For example, Lisa might try to find other topics about which Tim has moral attitudes that are in tension with his attitude to abortion—for example, killing in self‐defence or euthanasia. Yet, no matter how long their discussion goes on, there is no philosophical guarantee that one of them will be able to prove the other mistaken. If they do end up agreeing, this is at least in part because of the contingent, natural fact that, when focused on certain empirical circumstances, they happen to have the same attitude.
Philosophy of language and philosophy of science were dominant from the middle 1930s for the next twenty‐five years. During this period, many leading philosophers felt reluctant to venture into normative ethics. It was often said that philosophers have no special expertise in, or insight into, matters of right and wrong. Philosophers could defend views about the nature of moral language and judgement. But if there are no literally true propositions that x is morally required or y is morally wrong, the only moral insight or expertise one could legitimately claim to have is that one has moral attitudes that are based on fuller empirical information or are more consistent.
According to the emotivists, moral disagreement does not entail an error on one or the other side. John Rawls's 1951 ‘Outline for a Decision Procedure in Ethics’ suggested that disagreement does indicate error.2 The right way to proceed in systematic moral thought, Rawls suggested, is to
1. Think carefully about one's own general moral principles.
2. Think carefully about what one thinks is morally required in this or that specific circumstance.
3. Consider the views of unbiased experts both about general moral principle and about what is morally required in specific circumstances.
4. Try to get all of these into a consistent and coherent whole, which Rawls dubbed ‘reflective equilibrium’.
Achieving such a reflective equilibrium between our general principles and our judgements about specific kinds of case turns out to be more difficult than we might expect. Over and over, most people find that their general principles need qualification or supplementation in order to cohere with what certainly seem to be the right judgements about particular cases. The problem is multiplied when we must not only get our own views into a coherent set but also get agreement from others. Nevertheless, the goal Rawls identified is a coherent set of moral views all of which would be agreed to by others who are unbiased and well informed.
This methodological innovation has undoubtedly been the most influential contribution an American has made to contemporary moral philosophy. By the late twentieth century, nearly every important writer on moral philosophy accepted the methodology in practice if not in name. Any general moral principle that is proposed gets ‘tested’ by seeing whether its implications are plausible. If a principle is found to have implications that seem very wrong, then the question is whether the general principle is nevertheless, on reflection, more plausible than the denial of what follows from it. Very often, general principles are on the losing side of the battle. In effect, they are refuted by their implications.
While Rawls was teaching at Princeton (1950–2), J. O. Urmson spent a year there on leave from Oxford. Rawls won a Fullbright fellowship and spent the 1952–3 academic year at Urmson's college in Oxford. This is important for many reasons. The most immediate was that the distinction between act‐utilitarianism and rule‐utilitarianism was developing at this time, and Urmson and Rawls were leaders in this. Stephen Toulmin's vaguely rule‐utilitarian An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics had been published in 1950, but Urmson's 1953 ‘The Interpretation of the Moral Philosophy of J. S. Mill’ and Rawls's 1955 ‘Two Concepts of Rules’ came to be seen as the classic early formulations of rule‐utilitarianism.
Act‐utilitarianism holds that an act is morally right if and only if the act would produce at least as much utility (or, alternatively, expected utility) as any other available act. Rule‐utilitarianism holds that agents should follow (p. 583) whatever rules would produce the most utility (or expected utility). So formulated, act‐utilitarianism and rule‐utilitarianism might be compatible. G. E. Moore, for example, had claimed that an act is right if and only if it maximizes the good, and that the modus operandi most likely to maximize the good is to follow tried and tested general rules.
But Rawls's rule‐utilitarianism seemed to go further than merely claiming that agents ought to follow rules and do their part in certain social institutions and practices. His paper accepted that utility can be used to evaluate rules, institutions, and practices, which is something that act‐utilitarians had accepted. But Rawls contended that rules, institutions, and practices selected for their utility then determine what counts as morally right action. So a particular act can be morally right, on this conception, even if that particular act doesn't maximize utility (or expected utility).
The terminology ‘act‐utilitarianism’ and ‘rule‐utilitarianism’ was coined by Richard Brandt in his influential textbook Ethical Theory (1959). Together with John Harsanyi (who later shared a Nobel Prize for economics), Brandt became one of the most influential exponents of rule‐utilitarianism. (See Harsanyi 1976, 1977, and 1982; see Brandt 1979, 1992.) But, by the time Brandt's textbook was published, utilitarianism was under severe attack for its potential to endorse injustice. Even Rawls was already beginning to set out an anti‐utilitarian theory which he called ‘justice as fairness’ (1958). And many other philosophers were arguing that rule‐utilitarianism either doesn't really oppose act‐utilitarianism or is incoherent. After Rawls's student David Lyons published Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism in 1965, there was growing doubt that any form of utilitarianism is plausible.
What was especially important about Urmson's and Rawls's papers was the proposal that moral thought should have a two‐level structure. First, there is a criterion for evaluating rules, institutions, and social practices. Then, the institutions, social practices, and rules deemed acceptable according to that criterion are to be used to determine which acts are right and which wrong. Utility was the criterion that Rawls and others at the time proposed for evaluating rules, institutions, and social practices. But, as Rawls later argued, one could think the multi‐level structure for moral thought appropriate even if one thought that the criterion to use in evaluating institutions, practices, and rules is not one focused on utility.
During the 1960s, Rawls's work on political justice took a decidedly contractualist form. His first book, A Theory of Justice, did not come out until 1971, but drafts of parts of it had been in wide circulation for years. Indeed, (p. 584) already former students and followers were applying his contractualist scheme to ethics. (See Richards 1971.)
As explained in Rawls's book, one feature of utilitarianism that he found appealing is utilitarianism's promise to provide a principled way of resolving conflict. Utilitarianism, at least in its simplest and most familiar form, promises to resolve possible conflicts among various principles and values by reference to the criterion of maximum utility: what should be done is whatever would maximize utility. Utilitarianism's promise to leave questions of principle resolved contrasts with the messy intractability resulting from a theory with multiple foundational principles that are not lexically ordered. For example, suppose that the two foundational principles of social justice are that utility should be maximized and that equality should be maximized. Or the two principles might be about maximizing equality and maximizing liberty. In any case, there may well be many situations in which one of these foundational principles favours one arrangement and the other principle favours a different arrangement.
Another feature of utilitarianism that Rawls found attractive is its manifest impartiality. This consists in taking benefits or harms to any one individual to be just as important as the same‐size benefits or harms to any other individual. While accepting that moral and political justification must be fundamentally impartial, Rawls thought that utilitarianism offered a flawed conception of impartiality. Utilitarianism conceives of impartiality along the lines of a perfectly impartially benevolent observer—that is, an observer who cares equally about everyone's welfare. Rawls proposed a different model of impartiality.
In Rawls's model of impartiality, we are to imagine the choice of principles for selecting institutions, practices, and rules being made in a self‐interested way but behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. This veil screens out any self‐knowledge that might allow partiality or bias to be activated. Choosers behind the veil of ignorance do not know whether they are themselves rich or poor, untalented or talented, male or female, religious or not, etc. If these choosers do not know which groups they fall into, they will not be biased towards any particular groups. Their choice of principles could not but be utterly unbiased, and thus would be impartial.
Rawls borrowed the idea of the veil of ignorance from Harsanyi. Harsanyi had supposed that, from behind the veil of ignorance, one would know all the general facts about society, such as the sizes of different social groups. He also supposed that, behind the veil where one did not know anything particular (p. 585) about oneself, one had an equal chance of being anyone. Therefore, if one knew that (for example) 95 per cent of the population is able‐bodied and 5 per cent disabled, one would assume one had a 95 per cent chance of being one of the able‐bodied. When doing a calculation of the expected personal good for oneself of this or that possible social arrangement, one would then factor in these probabilities. Harsanyi concluded that one would choose the principle that institutions, practices, rules, and so on should be selected on the basis of the amount of utility they would produce, since this is the way to maximize expected utility for someone behind the veil of ignorance. So Harsanyi's use of the veil of ignorance led to a rule‐utilitarian principle.
Rawls wanted to avoid Harsanyi's rule‐utilitarian conclusion. So he proposed that those behind the veil of ignorance should not assume that they have an equal chance of turning out to be anyone, or rather, that those behind the veil should make no assumptions about the probabilities of having this or that characteristic. For all someone behind the veil knows, there might be a very high chance that he or she is poor, disabled, and otherwise disadvantaged. Rawls held that those behind the veil of ignorance should give special attention to the possibility that they themselves turn out to be in the worst‐off group, whichever the worst‐off group is. If those behind the veil of ignorance give special attention to the possibility that they turn out to be in this group, they will insist that the worst‐off group be left as well off as possible.
Utilitarianism accepts that burdens for the worse‐off can be compensated for by benefits to the better‐off. In contrast, Rawls's contractualism holds that burdens for the worst‐off are justified only if no other arrangement would give better prospects to its worst‐off (where there is no presumption that the worst‐off under one arrangement are also the worst‐off under another arrangement). Whereas utilitarianism focuses on average utility, Rawlsian contractualism focuses on the plight of the worst‐off. An inegalitarian system might maximize average utility, and this is possible without there being any sort of compensation to those left worst off. Rawlsian contractualism can also accept an inegalitarian system—but only if any other arrangement would leave at least some people even worse off. In this way, Rawlsian contractualism is more egalitarian than utilitarianism is.
Rawlsian contractualism was also seen as more individualistic than utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is straightforwardly collectivist: the good of the many can outweigh the good of the few. Losses to some can be offset by larger benefits to others. Rawlsian contractualism rejects this way of thinking. The (p. 586) contractualist test is: would each individual have sufficient reason to accept such‐and‐such arrangement?
One formulation of Kant's categorical imperative was ‘Treat humanity always as an end‐in‐itself, never merely as a means’. But what is it to treat people as ends‐in‐themselves rather than as means? One plausible answer is that it is to treat them as valuable in themselves, not merely as an instrument to something else that is valuable. But if this is how we understand Kant's formulation, we do not get a clear contrast with utilitarianism. For utilitarianism takes people to be valuable in themselves, not merely valuable as instruments to other things.
So let us consider another possible interpretation of ‘Treat humanity always as an end‐in‐itself, never merely as a means’. This interpretation construes treating people as end‐in‐themselves as treating people in ways to which they either do consent, or would consent under certain idealized conditions, or at least could consent.
Just as forms of utilitarianism proliferated during the 1950s and early 1960s, so forms of contractualism proliferated from the late 1960s, largely but not exclusively in Rawls's wake. Rawls's theory most definitely focused on principles to which he argued everyone would consent under certain idealized conditions (namely, from behind a veil of ignorance without knowledge of either one's own personal characteristics or the prevalence of this or that set of characteristics). Many worried that he hadn't specified the right conditions. Others worried that what mattered is not what people would agree to under counterfactual conditions, but what they have actually accepted.
For example, one especially important set of publications in moral philosophy during the 1970s came from Gilbert Harman. In his 1975 paper ‘Moral Relativism Defended’ and then in his 1977 book The Nature of Morality, Harman propounded the view that the best explanation of our moral attitudes is that they evolved out of implicit bargaining between haves and have‐nots. He also argued that we should see moral ‘oughts’ as deriving not from objective moral facts antecedent to human desires but instead from contingent and perhaps variable human desires. When we try to explain why, for instance, observers see moral wrongness in sadistic torture, we need only refer to the observers’ beliefs about empirical facts, such as the victim's suffering and the perpetrator's maliciousness, and to the moral attitudes of the observers, such as their moral principles against sadism and torture. What is not necessary for a full and adequate explanation, according to Harman, is reference to real moral truth.
The difficulty of making room for moral truth in a general naturalistic conception of reality continued as a focus of attention for moral philosophers. Proponents of so‐called Cornell realism (e.g. Nicholas Sturgeon, Peter Railton, David Boyd, and David Brink) contended that moral truths could indeed pull their weight in naturalistic explanations (e.g. one person's evil character, or someone else's good character, might play a crucial role in the best explanation of certain events). (See Railton 1986; Sturgeon 1988; Boyd 1988; and Brink 1989.) They also contended that moral properties are naturalistic ones. But Sayre‐McCord (1988b) countered with the argument that the very idea of the best explanation in natural science can itself depend on evaluative facts, such as the evaluative fact that, where two explanatory theories are equally good at explaining and predicting events, the simpler and more elegant theory is better.
While American moral philosophy has most definitely contributed significantly to the development of thought about the nature of moral properties, its contribution to normative ethics has been greater. As mentioned above, in the middle part of the twentieth century Rawls and some of his students contributed to the development and then the demise of utilitarianism. Many of his former students—for example, Thomas Hill Jr. (1991, 2000, 2002) Onora O'Neill (1989, 1996), Barbara Herman (1996, 2007), and Christine Korsgaard (1996a, 1996b)—went on to argue that suitably refined Kantian moral philosophy is more attractive than other views. This body of work on Kantianism is penetrating, innovative, and undoubtedly registers as one of the high water marks of American moral philosophy. Another former Rawls student, Thomas Nagel, has been one of the leading defenders of the idea of moral objectivity (Nagel 1970, 1979, 1986) as well as an important contributor to the development of moral contractualism (Nagel 1991). Other of Rawls's former students who have written extensively on contractualism are Jean Hampton (1986) and, most influentially, Thomas Scanlon (1998). In fact, Scanlon's book was so long in development and so carefully argued that many philosophers feel that contractualist ethics stands or falls with his treatment.
American normative ethics has had other important streams. One of these has been work on desert by Joel Feinberg (1970a), George Sher (1987), Fred Feldman (1997), and Shelly Kagan (1999). Another has been the work of Feinberg (1970b), Judith Jarvis Thomson (1971, 1990), Robert Nozick (1974), Ronald Dworkin (1977), Alan Gewirth (1978), Carl Wellman (1985), L. Wayne Sumner (1987), and Hillel Steiner (1994) on rights. Yet another (p. 588) has been feminist moral theory, with Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development and Nell Noddings's Care: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education leading the way.3
Gilligan and Noddings reacted against the Kantian and Rawlsian emphasis on justice and rules and rights. Gilligan claimed that her empirical studies showed that females tend to think in a more flexible, conflict‐avoiding, relationship‐preserving ways, which are not inferior to more typically male thinking about justice, rules, and rights. Noddings developed the ‘ethics of care’, which is focused on one's particular relationships in a way that does not seek impartial justification and is not guided by general principles. (For criticism of feminist ethics, see Hampton 1993 and Driver 2005.)
Feminist ethics is often associated with virtue ethics. The term ‘virtue ethics’ refers to a family of moral theories sharing the doctrine that right acts are just whatever ones a virtuous person would do. So virtue ethics takes the evaluation of character to be more fundamental than the evaluation of acts. This approach can be traced back through Hume and Aquinas to Aristotle. But it was revived in the twentieth century by Philippa Foot, a British philosopher who worked at UCLA for roughly half of her career, and Alasdair MacIntyre, another British philosopher who worked even longer in the USA.
The proponent of virtue ethics closest to feminist ethics is definitely Michael Slote, starting with his From Morality to Virtue (1992) and culminating in his The Ethics of Care and Empathy (2007). Slote's ‘sentimentalist’ account maintains that whether an act is morally right depends on whether it comes from a morally good motive. Slote focuses on universal benevolence or caring, which he takes to be intrinsically morally good.4
Benevolence might seem to fit much better as the foundational or core concern of utilitarian ethics than of virtue ethics. Ironically, however, while the virtue ethicist Slote has increasingly taken benevolence to be the foundational virtue, those working in the utilitarian tradition have been moving in the opposite direction. Robert Adams (1976), Derek Parfit (1984), and Peter Railton (1984), for example, have argued that the pattern of concern most likely to maximize the impartial good might be one passionately committed to various more personal projects and particular commitments. In part this is because human beings cannot sustain strict impartiality towards everyone (p. 589) and at the same time have intense feelings. (For elaboration, see Hooker 2000: 138–41.)
But if a utilitarian or other impartial consequentialist theory allows the agent to have a certain constellation of commitments and passions other than impartial benevolence, what is this theory to say about the morality of the acts that such commitments and passions produce? It certainly seems that, if we have the constellation of commitments and passions that consequentialism licenses, then consequentialism can hardly condemn us for acting as that constellation of commitments and passions mandates. How silly it would be to think people should be blamed—much less punished—for acting on the motivation that they were right to have.
One line of response to this is to say that there is a set of acts that are morally wrong though the agent had precisely the motivation he or she should have had. However, what is the force of ‘morally wrong’ when predicated of such acts? Wrongness has a particularly tight and intimate connection with blameworthiness. This connection is too tight to be comfortable with the idea that there is a set of acts that are wrong though the people who do those acts are not blameworthy.
Another line of response is the following. Consequentialism or, more specifically, utilitarianism can assess passions, projects, and, more generally, patterns of motivation as good. And it can assess acts as regrettable or fortunate, depending of course on their consequences. But consequentialism and utilitarianism should eschew thinking in terms of ‘wrong act’. For while people should be blamed for having the wrong pattern of motivation, they must not be blamed for acting on the right pattern of motivation. (See Railton 1988; for the opposed view, see Norcross 2006.) And, given the tightness of the tie between wrongness and blameworthiness, if people cannot rightly be blamed for acting on the right pattern of motivation, they are not wrong to do so.
But for a moral theory to lose the concept of ‘wrong act’ is a desperate move. Could punishment be justified where the concept ‘wrong act’ is lost? Intuitively, people can be responsible for their concerns, intentions, and acts, and they can be blamed for their concerns, intentions, and acts. They cannot rightly be punished for their concerns; however, they can rightly be punished for their intentions and acts—but only if those intentions and acts are wrong! (For a well‐developed theory of wrongness and blame, see Gert 2005.)
Interest in the connections between concepts like ‘wrong’ and ‘blameworthy’ and ideas of agency and responsibility is mushrooming. Prominent examples (p. 590) are Susan Wolf (1993), R. Jay Wallace (1994), John Martin Fisher and Mark Ravizza (1998), and George Sher (2005).
Connected closely to ideas about responsibility and blame are questions about whether one is more responsible, and to blame, for bad consequences that were part of one's intention (i.e. part of one's aim or one's means to achieve that aim) than one is for bad consequences that were not. A similar question arises about whether one is more responsible for bad consequences that result from what one does than one is for bad consequences that one could have prevented but didn't. These questions have been the focus of prolonged debate in American moral philosophy, with influential contributions from Philippa Foot (1978), Judith Jarvis Thomson (1971, 1990), Charles Fried (1978), James Rachels (1975), Shelly Kagan (1988), Warren Quinn (1989a, 1989b), Jonathan Bennett (1995), Samuel Scheffler (1979, 2004), Frances Kamm (1998, 2000, 2006), and Jeff McMahan (2001).
Such debates return us to questions about people's rights to life, liberty, property, and equal protection by the law. On the one side there is the strain of American consequentialism, which tends to think of all rights in a fairly pragmatic way. While this side has had some forceful and eloquent advocates, it has always been the smaller group. On the other side are those who think at least some rights are so intuitively compelling that any moral theory failing to endorse them is thereby too implausible to accept. For most American moral philosophers, the goal is to find a moral theory that coheres as well as possible with all our considered moral convictions, especially the ones about what it is wrong to do to people without their consent. And most American moral philosophers have concluded that any such theory must be grounded in non‐pragmatic considerations, such as the Kantian idea of respect for persons (for a recent example, see Audi 2005), or, more specifically, respect for rational agency (see Sumner 1987 and Griffin 2008).
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(1) See Butler (1726); Clarke (1728); Price (1787); Reid (1788); Sidgwick (1874); Moore (1903); Prichard (1912); Rashdall (1929); Broad (1930); Ross (1930, 1939); Carritt (1947); Ewing (1947, 1951); Nagel (1986: ch. 8; 1997: ch. 7); Thomson (1990: 12–20); Dworkin (1996); Audi (1999, 2005).
(2) The paper emerged from the doctoral dissertation which Rawls submitted in 1950 to Princeton, where Rawls had also been an undergraduate until serving in the army 1943–5. The utilitarian Walter Stace had not only taught Rawls when Rawls was an undergraduate, but also supervised Rawls's doctoral work.