The Problem of Moral Ambivalence: Revisiting Henry Sidgwick's Theory of Rational Benevolence as a Basis for Moral Reasoning, with Reference to Prenatal Ethical Dilemmas
Addison, Rachel Helen
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
This thesis addresses the conflict traditionally found within moral philosophy between deontological and utilitarian schools of thought. Using the example of the serious moral ambivalence experienced by individuals who are deciding whether to end or continue a difficult pregnancy, it is argued that this ambivalence is the result of both absolute principles (such as the intrinsic value of human life) and outcome based considerations (such as the desire to avoid causing pain and suffering) appearing to be morally reasonable, while also being fundamentally opposed: Each course of action is at once morally defensible on the basis of its own reasonableness, and, conversely, reprehensible due to the reasonableness of the other. This lived experience of moral ambivalence is directly reflected by the tension between deontology and utilitarianism as it occurs at the moral philosophic level, where the deontological emphasis on the unconditional rightness of certain principles is seen to be at irreconcilable odds with the utilitarian emphasis on the attainment of certain ends. The thesis’ central claim is that such ambivalence strongly indicates that human morality is neither exclusively one type or the other, and that both types of moral property are in fact reasonable, and thus have moral value. It is theorised that accounting for this dual reasonableness would lead to the most accurate and helpful representation of the human moral experience – but that the philosophic ‘divide’ between the two types of principle has led to an either/or situation, which has largely prevented this sort of understanding from being developed. The thesis argues that Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick developed a view in which neither deontological nor utilitarian principles can be fully realised without reference to the other, precisely on the basis that both can be found to be ultimately rational. This thesis aims to revitalise that theory – represented by the term ‘Rational Benevolence’ - to show that Sidgwick reconciled the divide between absolute and end based principles in such a way that the relationship between them becomes a ‘synthesis’. In this synthesis, deontological and utilitarian concepts are both seen as essential components of morality, that combine to form a dynamic whole in which the value of each principle is both indicated and naturally limited by the value of the other, on account of their respective rationalities. It is argued that this provides a more comprehensive understanding of the reality of the human moral experience, and better moral justification for either course of action in situations of complex and sensitive ethical decision making.
Reed, Esther Hill, Jonathan
PhD in Theology
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