Ross and utilitarianism on promise keeping and lying: Self‐evidence and the data of ethics

Philosophical Issues 15 (1):140–157 (2005)
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An important test of any moral theory is whether it can give a satisfactory account of moral prohibitions such as those against promise breaking and lying. Act-utilitarianism (hereafter utilitarianism) implies that any act can be justified if it results in the best consequences. Utilitarianism implies that it is sometimes morally right to break promises and tell lies. Few people find this result to be counterintuitive and very few are persuaded by Kant’s arguments that attempt to show that lying is always wrong, even if it is necessary to save someone’s life. One thing that makes Kant’s view about lying so implausible is that he is committed to the view that the duty not to lie is always more important than any conflicting duties. Even if we agree with utilitarianism that lying and promise breaking are sometimes morally permissible, we may still be inclined to think that utilitarianism is too permissive about lying and promise breaking. Ross gives the definitive statement of this criticism. He holds that there is a strong, but overrridable, moral presumption against telling lies and breaking promises that is independent of utilitarian considerations. Almost all utilitarians claim that there is a strong moral presumption against telling lies and breaking promises on account of the direct and indirect bad consequences of those actions. However, utilitarians cannot say that there is any moral presumption against lying and promise breaking that is independent of their bad consequences. Many philosophers think that Ross’s theory constitutes a kind of reasonable middle ground in ethics between Kant’s absolutism and utilitarianism. Ross’s theory is arguably the major ethical theory that is closest to most people’s commonsense moral beliefs. It is noteworthy that the two most important defenders of rule-utilitarianism/rule-consequentialism.



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Thomas L. Carson
Loyola University, Chicago

Citations of this work

Consequentialism and Promises.Alida Liberman - 2020 - In Douglas Portmore (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Consequentialism. pp. 289 - 309.
Public Health Officials Should Almost Always Tell the Truth.Director Samuel - 2023 - Journal of Applied Philosophy (TBD):1-15.

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