Notiser Årgång 9, Nr 1, 2022
This is a special issue
on formal ethics and formal ethical principles. At least one more
paper will (perhaps) be added to this issue later.
Harry J. Gensler
Formal Ethical Principles
In this paper, Harry Gensler discusses formal ethics, which studies
rational patterns in our ethical thinking. He describes four fundamental
principles that he calls [r] (a rationality axiom), [e] (ends-means
consistency), [p] (prescriptivity) and [u] (universalizability).
Gensler also discusses the so-called golden rule (“treat others
as you want to be treated”) and shows how several versions of this
principle can be derived from his axioms. According to Gensler,
there are both good and bad versions of the golden rule. One of
the good versions can be formulated in the following way: Treat
others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation.
Gensler shows how this version of the golden rule can be used in
our moral thinking and how it can be defended against many common
objections. Together the principles discussed in the paper can be
used to help us think more rationally about morality and live more
consistent lives. The paper brings together several ideas that Gensler
has been working on for more than 50 years.
On Formality and Formalism in Ethics
Question: is the familiar distinction of ‘formal’ vs. ‘material’
in ethical theory of any real use?
On one hand, ‘formal’ could just refer to the part of our inquiry
known as meta-ethics, and we aren’t querying that here. But ‘formalism’
is also supposed to identify a sub-class of theories about what
we ought to do. The idea is supposed to be that “formalism” and
something else - ‘consequential-ism’ is usually the supposedly opposed
idea - are genuine alternatives as ethical theories. It’s that idea
that I challenge here.
Morality has to do with principles, or rules, “for the group”. Which
group? That ‘group’ might simply be a variable here, which would
give us one or another version of Relativism: everyone to do whatever
his/her group’s rules say to do. But all relativisms fail in the
face of disagreement among the groups in question. The solution
to all such is the same as was the application to religion, where
freedom is the byword: each to practice his own religion, but no
one may enforce his or her religion on others. Other situations
of conflict can replace religion, and the general result is the
same: we are to respect the freedom of each to pursue his or her
own way, so long as that way is compatible with the ways of others.
But that rule is not that of any particular group. It is the rule
for all, because of reflection on our general situations. And it
is only “formal” in the sense that it applies to religions generally,
rather than to some particular one.
Underlying all such is the (correct) idea, that morality is essentially
a universal understanding, an agreement among all, regarding
how our mutual interactions are to be conducted. Are contracts,
then, “formal”? No. They are motivated by our hope of gain, the
particular gain varying from one to another.
I conclude by reminding readers of my earlier proof that a genuine
“formalism” in ethics is nonsense. All acts are wrong because of
their consequences, but not all consequences are relevant. Those
mentioned in the Social Contract are: we are to avoid consequences
that are bad for others (or oneself), insofar as those others are
themselves living up to that very rule; we may pursue whatever consequences
are compatible with others’ pursuits.
Personalized Neutral-Range Utilitarianism with Incommensurable
Lives – What Form Does It Take? And Is It Repugnant?
This paper considers Neutral-Range Utilitarianism (NRU) – a utilitarian
theory that posits a range of lives that are neutral in impersonal
value, in the sense that adding people with such lives to the world’s
population doesn’t make the world, or its population, either better
or worse. The paper considers a particular version of this utilitarian
axiology, Personalized NRU (PNRU), according to which a life is
in this way impersonally neutral if and only if it is neutral in
its personal value, i.e., iff it is neither better nor worse for
a person to have such a life than not to exist at all. A personally
neutral life might in principle be either ‘strictly neutral’, i.e.,
equally as good for a person as non-existence, or ‘weakly neutral’,
i.e., incommensurable with non-existence: neither better or worse,
nor equally as good. The range of lives that are weakly neutral
may well be relatively extended. It seems plausible that some of
them may be better for a person than others.
PNRU differs from the more familiar versions of NRU, according to
which even good lives (either all or all up to some wellbeing limit)
are impersonally neutral: adding people with such lives doesn’t
make the world better. Unlike PNRU, these versions conflict with
a basic welfarist claim that what is good for a person is pro tanto
The paper considers PNRU in a framework that differs from the standard
one for utilitarian axiologies in that it allows for incommensurable
lives. Lives can be incommensurable in personal value with non-existence,
but also with each other. Is utilitarian aggregation possible if
all these incommensur-abilities are allowed? The paper addresses
the question how PNRU should be formulated in such a non-standard
The second question addressed in the paper concerns the Repugnant
Conclusion. Given additional assumptions, PNRU implies that for
any population there is a better one in which everyone’s life is
barely good – barely worth living. However, as it turns out, the
apparent repugnance of this conclusion is considerably mitigated
by the introduction of the neutral range. It is shown that barely
good lives cannot be only marginally better than bad lives: the
distance between the former and the latter must be significant.
This claim crucially depends on the argument that a framework in
which weakly neutral lives are allowed has no room for strictly
Unfortunately, though, PNRU leads to another repugnant conclusion
that is less easy to come to terms with: For any population, however
wonderful, there is another possible population that isn’t worse
even though everyone in that other population has a life that not
only isn’t good (not even barely good) but also is very close to
being positively bad. That PNRU has this worrying implication is
a problem that needs to be recognized and confronted.
The Place of the Golden Rule and Formal Ethics in a Philosophy
Formal ethics sharpens one’s capacity for (insightful) moral intuition
and sheds light on the golden rule, which I discuss in relation
to the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Harry Gensler. I consider
the rule in the context of a philosophy of living which is designed
to promote the sharpening and integration of our capacities for
intuition in the realms of science, morality, and spiritual experience.
Are Formal Principles Privileged?
In “Revisionary Intuitionism,” Michael Huemer argues for privileging
“formal” intuitions over intuitions about particular cases and intuitions
about prima facie duties. Formal intuitions, he argues, are not
prey to the many sceptical worries that afflict intuitions about
particular cases and intuitions about prima facie duties. I shall
argue that he does not show the superiority of formal intuitions
to intuitions about prima facie duties. I then consider Sarah McGrath’s
recent, very different, response to Huemer. I argue that Huemer
can avoid her objections, but in a way that makes his case for formal
intuitions just like a standard case for intuitions about prima
facie duties. I close by doubting whether stressing the generality
of an intuition, as Huemer and Peter Singer do, has much payoff.